When South Carolina looked at the first half of its 2012 football schedule, they knew there were some tricky match-ups but none that were not winnable. Vanderbilt was going to be tough for a season-opener SEC road game, Missouri was an unknown, and Georgia would be a battle of potential top 10 teams. Vanderbilt proved to be a tough season-opener, but Missouri and Georgia both ended up being blowouts. After the Georgia game ended, Carolina finished the first half of the season a perfect 6-0 and carries a number three national ranking into the second half of the season.
It is hard to find much to complain about with the Carolina offense this season. The Vanderbilt game was an embarrassing performance but they found a way to drive down the field with an injured Connor Shaw to score the game-winning touchdown. The offensive line has been a work in progress, but the emergence of Corey Robinson the last three weeks have helped solidify the line and they have progressively gotten better each week.
Shaw has been as efficient as a quarterback can be. Shaw has thrown just two interceptions on the season, one against Vanderbilt and one against UAB trying to play through the injury. Shaw has completed 76% of his passes for 733 yards and has seven touchdown passes. In Shaw's absence with the injury, Dylan Thompson has played well. Thompson has completed 51% for 510 yards and five touchdowns. Carolina has learned through the first half of the season that it has two viable options at quarterback.
Carolina has also learned that Marcus Lattimore is back. Lattimore rushed for 110 yards and two scores in his first game back before hardly being needed the next two weeks. While some unwarranted questions arose with Lattimore's knee, he came back against Missouri and rushed for 85 yards and two scores, then rushed for 100+ the last two weeks against Kentucky and Georgia. Lattimore is on pace to break his record for touchdowns in a season he set during his freshman season. Lattimore is back.
The biggest question in the receiving corps was who would replace Alshon Jeffery. The answer, as has been expected all along, is nobody. However, the receivers may be just as dangerous this season. When you have a guy like Jeffery a lot of times the other receivers just stood there and watched. Jeffery's production this season has been replaced by several receivers. Damiere Byrd has 288 yards receiving and two touchdowns, Bruce Ellington has 227 yards receiving and a touchdown, and Ace Sanders has 110 yards receiving and three scores. As a team South Carolina is on pace to pass for more yards than they did last season and most of the credit goes to the emergence of multiple receivers.
The offensive line was, and still is, the biggest question mark. They did not play well early on, particularly at the tackle position. Robinson has stepped in after spending the last two years going back and forth from offense to defense. Now back on the offensive line, the 6-8, 337-pound behemoth has found his niche at the tackle. With Mike Matulis at the other tackle, A.J. Cann and Ronald Patrick at the guard positions, and T.J. Johnson anchoring the line at center, the offensive line has improved tremendously in the past three weeks.
The offensive line is still not completely proven and that has what kept the offense from earning an A.
There really is no weakness on the defensive side of the ball. The defensive line is one of the best in the nation, the linebackers are the most underrated group on the team, and the secondary has been solid all season.
Jadeveon Clowney leads a defensive front four that is a match-up nightmare for any opposing offense. Clowney is second in the SEC with 6.5 sacks, trailing just Texas A&M's Damontre Moore who has seven. As if the 6-6 Clowney wasn't enough to block, he's joined on the end by 6-8 Devin Taylor who has 16 tackles and is third on the team with four tackles for loss. In the middle are tackles Kelcy Quarles and Byron Jerideau, who clogs the middle of the line and makes it difficult for running backs to get through. The duo also has a combined four sacks.
As if the starting four are not bad enough, Carolina will throw a "rabbit" package on the field in obvious passing situations. Joining Clowney and Taylor are fellow defensive ends Aldrick Fordham and Chaz Sutton. Sutton, as a back-up defensive end, is sixth in the SEC with four sacks and Fordham is right behind Sutton with 3.5. J.T. Surratt has come back from a suspension and has five tackles through three games at tackle and Gerald Dixon Jr. has seen playing time in the middle. With 21 sacks and an impressive 35.5 tackles for loss among themselves, the defensive line is quickly becoming the most difficult defensive front to stop.
As mentioned above, the linebacker group has been underrated this season. The top two tacklers on the team are both linebackers as Shaq Wilson and Quin Smith each have 30. Reginald Bowens isn't far behind with 23 tackles, and DeVonte Holloman has steadily seen his numbers improve in recent weeks. The group has three sacks and 12 tackles for loss. Wilson and Holloman both have two interceptions as well and Bowens has forced two fumbles and recovered one.
The secondary has not been spectacular by any means, but they have been really solid. Brison Williams and D.J. Swearinger both have an interception and Jimmy Legree has a pick-six, but those are the only three interceptions the secondary has. That is not the type of numbers you expect to see from a ball hawking defense like South Carolina has had in recent years. However, other than a 70-yard touchdown pass against Vanderbilt in the season-opener in which Williams went for an interception instead of making a tackle, they have not allowed a big play. That is the only passing touchdown the first team secondary has given up all year. Both Missouri and Georgia added a late touchdown in the fourth quarter in games already decided and the starters on the sideline. For a starting secondary to have only given up one touchdown pass in six games, that is pretty impressive.
Any time a defense allows opponents to just 278 yards per game, just 84 per game rushing, and is averaging less than 11 points allowed per game then they are doing something right.
Special teams: B-
There have been some big plays on special teams, but overall the play of special teams has not been on par to either the offense or the defense.
Starting with the positive, Ace Sanders already has two punt returns for touchdowns and is now in the top 15 in the country in punt return yards. His first game against ECU, the second time in his two-year career he has done that, and the last game against Georgia last week to completely blow the game open. He is dangerous any time he touches the ball and if he has time to scan the field when he catches the ball, you better watch out. Bruce Ellington has only gotten to return a kickoff three times, but does have a 50-yard return in his first return against Missouri.
Adam Yates is a respectable 3-for-5 in field goals, making from 20, 31, 38, but has missed from 36 against UAB and had a 33-yard kick blocked against Georgia. Yates has also kicked off 26 times, and has a respectable 15 touchbacks, but he has also kicked three out of bounds and allowed a long return against Georgia. Landon Ard has kicked it off 13 times, but has just three touchbacks and has given up two long returns, one against Vandy and the other against UAB. If not for Damiere Byrd's speed, all three could have resulted in touchdowns.
Tyler Hull has been decent as punter, averaging 39 yards per punt on 23 punts with a long of 55. He has six punts inside the 20 and three of 50+ yards, but has three touchbacks and was blocked against Kentucky.
Overall, the special teams have been inconsistent. When they are on they can be really good, but when they are not on it can be pretty ugly.
Overall Team: A
For a team that is 6-0 despite struggling in its two road games against inferior competition, Carolina has played well. They passed their first October test against #5 Georgia with flying colors and have been dominant at home all year long. They are tied for first in the SEC East with Florida and if they play as well in the second half as they did in the first half, look for Carolina to represent the East in the SEC Championship Game.
The second half of the season begins with a two-game stretch that is as tough as it gets. Carolina goes to ninth-ranked LSU this weekend and Florid next weekend in a game that very well could determine the SEC East Championship. If South Carolina can play better than they did in their previous two road games against Vanderbilt and Kentucky and walk away with wins, their daunting schedule opens up after three top 10 match-ups. They get Tennessee and Arkansas at home with a much-needed week off in between, and then have Wofford in what should be a tune-up for the season finale at arch-rival Clemson.
There is a long way to go, but a potential undefeated season is not out of the question. It is hard to believe that South Carolina could potential go through a season undefeated, but it is also hard to believe that the Gamecocks currently has the nation's longest win streak at 10 games. That streak will be tested the next two weeks, but these Gamecocks have proven that anything is possible.
First half grades
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