I dare say there has ever been a season more anticipated in South Carolina history than the 2011 season. For the first time since joining the SEC, the Gamecocks are predicted to repeat as SEC East Champions. That isn't the ultimate goal for this team. The ultimate goal is winning the program's first SEC Championship and playing for a National Championship. Football season officially kicks off at 7:30 tonight when the defending SEC East Champions takes the short walk across Bluff Rd and onto the Proving Grounds for the first fall practice. To officially kick off the 2011 season, GamecockAnthem makes five bold predictions for the 2011 Gamecocks. As are the expectations among the team, the five expectations are lofty.
1. Carolina will win 10 regular season games.
The Gamecocks do not have an easy schedule to say the least. It's road schedule includes games at Georgia, Mississippi State, Tennessee, and Arkansas and will open its season with a neutral-site game with East Carolina.
The Gamecocks stand a great chance of being able to run the table at home in 2011. A loss to Arkansas in 2010 was the only home loss of the season and a loss to Florida in 2009 was the only home loss that season. There are several intriguing games this season as the Gamecocks host Navy - a team Carolina fans may never forget - a rematch of last year's SEC Championship game with Auburn, a match-up with Florida, and close the season out with Clemson. This is the best chance since joining the SEC of going undefeated at home, and I think they do it.
That leaves the four road games, three of which come in consecutive weeks, as the biggest hurdles Carolina will have to leap.
2. Carolina will return to the SEC Championship game.
South Carolina made its first appearance in the SEC Championship game in 2010, leaving Atlanta with a bad taste in their mouths after a 56-17 loss to eventual National Champion Auburn. From the time they entered the tunnel heading back to the locker room following the game, the goal was simple; get back to Atlanta. That's been the mission the entire off-season and was made evident through summer workouts.
The four road games will be the big kicker. If Carolina can win three of the four they stand in excellent shape to win the East. Georgia is a must-win game. The Bulldogs have an extremely easy schedule with its only road games being Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Vandy. Mississippi State, Auburn and Kentucky come to Athens. Perhaps its toughest test following South Carolina will be its match-up with Florida in Jacksonville. Unless something drastic happens I don't see the Bulldogs losing more than two of its other seven SEC games. A loss to the Bulldogs and the Gamecocks may have to win out in order to win the East.
I predict the Gamecocks will beat Georgia and go 6-2 in the SEC, good enough for a return trip to Atlanta where they will likely face Alabama in a game where the winner may play for a National Title.
3. Carolina will be represented in New York
One of the five finalists for the Heisman Trophy in New York will be from South Carolina. The two most likely candidates are receiver Alshon Jeffery and running back Marcus Lattimore, but with a great season don't count out quarterback Stephen Garcia gaining national attention.
After just two seasons as a Gamecock, Jeffery is already one of the most prolific receivers in the country. He's already eighth in school history with 134 receptions, fourth in receiving yards with 2,280, and has 15 touchdowns. He already has eleven 100-yard games - tying Sidney Rice for the most in school history - and is the SEC active leader in both receiving yards and touchdowns. He has played in 27 games in Columbia, starting 21 times. Did not burst on the scene until the 2009 match-up with Kentucky, where he finished with seven catches for 138 yards and three touchdowns.
It did not take long for Lattimore to burst onto the scene. After scoring two touchdowns in his first collegiate game against Southern Miss in the season opener, Lattimore ran all over Georgia in the tune of 182 yards and two touchdowns on 37 carries. He would top both in the SEC East-clinching victory over the Gators with a school record 40 carries for 212 yards and three scores. Lattimore finished the season with 1,197 yards rushing and 17 touchdowns on 249 carries, and also caught 29 passes for 412 yards and two more scores.
Lattimore and Jeffery have already garnered a lot of praise in the preseason and one of the two will be sitting in New York when the Heisman Trophy will be presented to the nation's best player.
4. Clowney will record at least five sacks
Very few players have stepped on the campus at Carolina with the kind of attention Jadeveon Clowney has gotten. From the time he announced his college destination on Valentine's Day - also Clowney's birthday - live on ESPN until the time he steps on the field and puts on the Gamecock helmet for the first time tonight, Clowney has been the center of attention throughout the country. He will likely be the focus of attention tonight as well when he walks through the gates at the Proving Ground.
Clowney will not dominate the college game like he did the high school game, especially in his first year. However, with that kind of talent and work ethic there is no way you can keep him off the field. Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier has already said Clowney will be on the field in many third-and-long situations when projected starter at defensive end Melvin Ingram moves inside to the tackle position. That will allow Clowney to use his speed and freakish athletic ability to get around the end and head for the quarterback.
If Clowney had recorded five sacks last year, that would rank him fourth on the team behind Ingram, Cliff Matthews, and Devin Taylor. There's no reason to believe that Clowney does not have the ability to record five sacks in his freshman campaign.
5. Garcia will throw for 3,000 yards and 20 touchdowns
To say that Garcia's career has been bumpy is an understatement. Garcia will be coming off his fifth suspension in his fifth year at Carolina when he steps out on the field tonight. He was fully reinstated from his fifth suspension Monday after being partially reinstated to participate in summer workouts.
Garcia has impressed in summer workouts, drawing high praise from his head coach. Spurrier has always been hesitant in praising Garcia because he has yet to reach his full potential. That is a scary thing for opponents if it all clicks for Garcia in 2011, and there is plenty of evidence that supports Garcia will be ready.
Garcia has been a leader throughout summer workouts and organized seven-on-seven drills in the afternoons. Garcia wants to play at the next level and has the talent to be drafted, but he knows he has a lot to prove. With his history of problems, Garcia will have to have a big year if he wants to be drafted.
He's poised to do just that. If Garcia throws for 3,000 yards he would be just 200 yards shy of breaking Todd Ellis' school record of 9,953. If Garcia could pass for 3,247 yards he would reach 10,000 yards. A lofty goal, yes, but an attainable goal with the potential of the offense. Should Garcia throw 20 touchdown passes, he would surpass Steve Tanneyhill's school record of 62 touchdown passes.
Garcia's career has been a roller coaster ride of epic proportions, but he could very well go down as the most prolific quarterback in school history.
Gamecock Nation, football season is finally here.
Five predictions for the 2011 season
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