SEC PREVIEWS: Gamecocks still in the hunt

As if winning five straight national titles wasn't enough to declare the Southeastern Conference's college football supremacy, the league managed to take it one step further last season when the BCS title game matchup between Alabama and LSU guaranteed a sixth straight national champion from the SEC before the championship game was even played.

So how does seven in a row sound? Well it will be hard to bet against the SEC continuing its dominance, especially with LSU returning 15 starters from last year's squad and BCS champ Alabama still loaded on the offensive side even with the loss of standout running back Trent Richardson.

Yet the big story in SEC Football 2012 is the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M to the conference, something that figures to make it even tougher to get through the league schedule unscathed. While neither Mizzou nor the Aggies are expected to contend for SEC divisional titles, they both bring solid programs to the league. Missouri was ranked No. 1 in the country five years ago before losing to Oklahoma in the 2007 Big 12 title game, and A&M's Kyle Field is one of the most difficult venues in the country for visiting teams, something Florida, Arkansas and LSU will have to contend with this fall.

The Scout.com publishers believe that LSU and Georgia will repeat as division champions this year with LSU picked to win the SEC Championship. Previews of all 14 SEC teams are about to be featured on GamecockAnthem.com, and today we look at your Gamecocks.



SEC EAST

South Carolina (PREDICTED FINISH: 2ND IN EAST)


This time last year, most observers believed the Gamecocks would be led by their returning trio of quarterback Stephen Garcia, running back Marcus Lattimore and wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. By midway through the season Garcia had been benched and ultimately dismissed, Lattimore was out with an injury and Jeffery wasn't experiencing near the production he was used to.

Steve Spurrier and staff adapted, though, as the Gamecocks used a stifling defense and a zone-read-based rushing offense to win 11 games for the first time in school history.

Things are different for the formerly pass-happy Head Ball Coach and things are much different in Columbia as expectations are again sky-high, and the Gamecocks are considered one of the favorites to represent the East in the SEC Championship game.

Defensively, the Gamecocks have to deal with the losses of draft picks Stephon Gilmore, Melvin Ingram and Antonio Allen, but should field one of the best defensive end duos in the country. Devin Taylor returns for his senior season as the starter on one side, while former No. 1 prospect in the country Jadeveon Clowney looks to play more polished and comfortable after an eight-sack freshman season in a reserve role.

On the other side of the ball, the Gamecocks will be led by returning starter Connor Shaw at quarterback. Shaw took over for Garcia midway through last season, and over the final three games, he completed 41-of-55 passes (74.5 percent) for 657 yards with eight touchdowns and just one pick. Shaw is also 8-1 in his first nine games as a starter.

The offense will receive a boost from the return of Heisman candidate running back and team leader Lattimore. He is on pace to return to 100 percent for fall camp. Despite playing just seven games, he led the team with 818 yards rushing (116.9 per game) and scored 10 rushing touchdowns.

Senior Kenny Miles also returns at running back and was the team's go-to back in the final two games. Sophomore Brandon Wilds stepped up big last year in Lattimore's absence with three 100-yard games. Redshirt freshman Shon Carson was second on the depth chart ahead of both Miles and Wilds last season before suffering a season-ending knee injury in week two. Former four-star running back Mike Davis is expected to figure into the mix as well and may be the most talented back the Gamecocks signed since Lattimore in 2010.

While Jeffery will be hard to replace at receiver, the burden should be eased by a deep, talented tight end corps. Senior Justice Cunningham is one of the team's best blockers and shows strong hands as a checkdown option. Sophomore Buster Anderson made big plays as the second tight end last year and should be bigger and better as a threat in the passing game this season. Freshman Jerell Adams will join the fold as well and could be too athletic to keep off the field. The leader of the receiving corps is likely to be junior Ace Sanders, who has gotten better in each of his first two seasons. Sophomore Damiere Byrd is the team's fastest player and got open consistently this spring – he'll compete with junior DeAngelo Smith to start at Jeffery's old position. Bruce Ellington, who also stars on the basketball, returns for a second season and will provide valuable depth at the very least. Senior D.L. Moore will look to fend off a host of younger players as the starter at the third receiver spot.

The Gamecocks will again be fairly young on the offensive line but should continue to improve under the tutelage of Shawn Elliott. T.J. Johnson is the group's leader at center, while redshirt freshman Brandon Shell has the potential to be the team's best left tackle in some time.

Sophomore defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles became a playmaker midway through last season as a freshman and looks poised to become one of the league's premier inside players in his second season. Defensive tackle Byron Jerideau has waited his turn to start and has the edge to be the fourth starter on the d-line – he should be a steady gap-filler with his size and is the strongest player on the team.

At linebacker, the Gamecocks aren't spectacular but are deep and experienced. Starters Reggie Bowens and Shaq Wilson return while Quin Smith and Damario Jeffery will also be in the rotation. Bowens and Wilson could rotate at middle linebacker with Smith and Jeffery rotating at weakside linebacker or the staff could choose again to start both Bowens and Wilson. Redshirt freshman Cedrick Cooper could be too good not to get snaps as the staff is extremely high on his ability.

Allen led the team in tackles from the SPUR position – a hybrid strong safety/linebacker spot – last season, and will be replaced by senior DeVonte Holloman who was one of the defense's best players last season at the boundary safety spot.

South Carolina lacks some depth in the secondary but has a strong first group. D.J. Swearinger is one of the league's hardest hitters and is considered the "quarterback" of the secondary. Sophomore Brison Williams appeared ready to take on the role of starting boundary safety.

At cornerback, Akeem Auguste returns after missing nearly all of last season with a foot injury and will start alongside sophomore Victor Hampton, who has had some issues with consistency but is one of the team's most gifted players.

PREVIOUS PREVIEWS:

EAST
Florida (3)
Missouri (4)
Tennessee (5)
Vanderbilt (6)
Kentucky (7)

WEST
Alabama (2)
Arkansas (3)
Auburn (4)
Mississippi State (5)
Texas A&M (6)
Mississippi (7)

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