2014 CFN Preview - South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina RB Mike Davis
South Carolina RB Mike Davis
Posted May 27, 2014

CollegeFootballNews.com Preview 2014 - The star power might not be there, but South Carolina could be better. (Getty Images)

South Carolina Gamecocks

Preview 2014

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Head coach: Steve Spurrier
10th year: 77-39
25th year overall: 219-79-2
Returning Lettermen
Off: 29, Def. 23. ST 6
Lettermen Lost: 10
Ten Best Gamecock Players
1. RB Mike Davis, Jr.
2. OT Corey Robinson, Sr.
3. OT Brandon Shell, Jr.
4. QB Dylan Thompson, Sr.
5. LB/S Sharrod Golightly, Sr.
6. WR Shaq Roland, Jr.
7. LB Skai Moore, Soph.
8. DT J.T. Surratt, Sr.
9. RB Brandon Wilds, Jr.
10. S Brison Williams, Sr.
2014 Schedule

Aug. 28 Texas A&M
Sep. 6 East Carolina
Sep. 13 Georgia
Sep. 20 at Vanderbilt
Sep. 27 Missouri
Oct. 4 at Kentucky
Oct. 18 Furman
Oct. 25 at Auburn
Nov. 1 Tennessee
Nov. 15 at Florida
Nov. 22 South Alabama
Nov. 29 at Clemson

2013 might have been the best season in the history of South Carolina football, but the program didn't win anything that actually mattered. Now it's time to drain the putt.

Steve Spurrier is known for being a fantastic golfer, among other things, but even going back to the great days at Florida, his teams have been great at getting the ball close to the pin, but they can't quite get it down.

Of course he did a phenomenal job in Gainesville and won a national title, but his Gators backed into it – Ohio State's comeback win over Jake Plummer and Arizona State in the 1998 Rose Bowl opened that door. With the Gamecocks, his teams always come achingly close to doing something truly special, and the ball lips out of the cup.

Last season will forever be remembered for the epic comeback win over Missouri, but in the end, it didn't mean anything because of a painful late loss to a mediocre Tennessee squad the week earlier.

The 2012 team was tremendous in an 11-2 campaign, but a close loss to LSU and a blowout to Florida turned out to be the difference. In 2011 it was a tight loss to an okay Auburn team that kept USC out of the SEC title fun in an 11-2 season. Oddly enough, the one mediocre year in the last four ended with an appearance in the 2010 SEC championship. It might have been a blowout loss to Auburn, but at least the team got there.

And now it's time to take the next step forward.

Spurrier is the greatest coach in South Carolina history and the last few years have led to the greatest era by far. As last season proved, with seven wins over teams that finished with winning records, great victories over Clemson and UCF – the Knights' only defeat of the season – and strong wins over Missouri and Wisconsin, this is a top program. To become elite, though, South Carolina has to win a conference title, or at least come close.

A one-loss season in the SEC probably gets you into College Football Playoff, and that means a Spurrier team has to do all of the little things right week in and week out. That's not always a given.

You don't get better by losing Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles off the defensive front, but the recruiting has been good enough to restock the shelves in a hurry. The linebacking corps should be among the best in the SEC, and the secondary, while a bit of a question mark, is loaded with top-shelf athletes.

The offense might be without heart-and-soul quarterback Connor Shaw, but the line is the strongest in the Spurrier era by far, and the skill players are terrific with the backfield tandem of Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds about to start getting its due.

But does it all add up to another 11-2 season, or something more? 11 wins is a success by any standard, but South Carolina is past the point now of merely being happy that it doesn't suck. It might not be fair and it might not be right considering the harsh world of the SEC, but considering the Ball Coach is 69, the window might be closing soon.

Spurrier never won 11 or more games three years in a row at Florida, but now he's going for a fourth at South Carolina. With the schedule and all the holes to fill, it's not a gimme.

What to watch for on offense: The offense doesn't have Connor Shaw to save the day anymore. He might not have been the flashiest quarterback around, and he was more of a baller than a classic Steve Spurrier technician, but he was a winner. Dylan Thompson doesn't have to be an all-star, and he doesn't have to be Shaw, but he has to keep the interceptions to a bare minimum – he threw three last year while Shaw gave up just one - and he has to rely on the running game.

Always forgotten about when it comes to Spurrier is how his ground attacks are always terrific, and this one should be special with Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds working behind a tough, talented, veteran line that should be able to control games by pounding away. Thompson will have to make plays and come through big for South Carolina to have any shot at winning the SEC East, and the receiving corps is good enough hit the home run, but everything will revolve around Davis first.

What to watch for on defense: Welcome to the no-name D. The best South Carolina defensive player is … Sharrod Golightly? J.T. Surratt? Brison Williams? They're not household names, but they're very, very good, and around them, the defense should be better than it'll get credit for. Everyone will lament the loss of Clowney, even after a disappointing campaign, but the bigger holes to fill are in the secondary where Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree are gone from a pass defense that gave up just 196 yards. Even with the No. 1 overall draft pick on the line, last season was the lowest sack total generated by the Gamecocks since 2007, and the 25 was a big drop from the 43 generated in 2013. The secondary turned out to be fine, the defense overall was terrific, and the results were there. They should be again, even if you can't tell the players without a program. Expect the Gamecocks to manufacture pressure from several different spots, and expect new stars to emerge from a defense that'll finish in the top 20.

The team will be far better if… South Carolina always wins the turnover battle. The difference between being good, great and special in the SEC really does come down to every little thing, and for South Carolina, it's all about the turnover margin under Steve Spurrier. The 2009 SEC opener against Georgia was the last time the Gamecocks lost a game when they were on the plus side of the turnover margin, being in the negative in 15 of the 16 losses since then, finishing even in the 2011 loss to Auburn.

Last season, USC was worse than -1 twice – once it lost to Tennessee, and the other time it took an epic comeback to beat Missouri. In 2012, the team was worse than -1 once – -4 in the blowout loss to Florida. -3 against Arkansas in 44-28 was the only time it was worse than -1 in 2011. Since beating Kentucky in the middle of 2010, South Carolina is 1-8 when going -2 or worse.

The Schedule: Can the Gamecocks get the job done at home? They'll have to early on with huge battles against Texas A&M, Georgia and Missouri before September is done, to go along with a manageable road date against Vanderbilt and an October kickoff at Kentucky before getting a week off to prepare for … Furman? As long as there isn't a slip up against East Carolina, and if USC can get by the Aggies and Bulldogs, they'll be 7-0 going into the showdown at Auburn.

There's a week off to prepare for Florida, but that should be a far more dangerous road game to end the SEC regular season than it might seem. Don't sleep on South Alabama as a sandwich game between road trips to The Swamp and Clemson – Steve Spurrier teams usually take a half off in games like that.

Best offensive player: Junior RB Mike Davis. He might not get the national acclaim that Marcus Lattimore received before the knee injuries, but Davis could turn out to be more productive. Helped by the running of Connor Shaw, Davis didn't have to carry the entire load last season like Lattimore did in 2010, and even though he's a thick back who's built to handle the pounding, that's a good thing. The numbers won't be there to be in the Heisman chase, but behind the terrific and talented line, he should be among the most effective backs in the country averaging close to six yards per crack. Get him in the open field and bye-bye. 

Best defensive player: Senior LB/S Sharrod Golightly. More steady than spectacular, the smallish hybrid in the Spur position turned in a nice season getting into the backfield from time to time and proving to be a solid playmaker against the run. Linebacker Skai Moore or running mate Kaiwan Lewis will likely lead the team in tackles, and the hope is for Gerald Dixon or Darius English to turn into a terror on the end, but Golightly should be the most reliable all-around defender, even if he isn't the most spectacular.

Key players to a successful season: Senior QB Dylan Thompson. He's as prepared as a new starting quarterback can possibly be after seeing time here and there over the last few seasons in key spots. He knows the system, he knows what Spurrier wants, and he knows how to produce. Most of all this year, he has to know how to stay healthy with a major drop-off from the one to the two. Redshirt freshman Connor Mitch is the backup – for now - but sophomore Perry Orth is right there in the mix. Spurrier will work his reserves into the fold like he always does, but to win a title, Thompson has to be terrific – and on the field.

The season will be a success if ... South Carolina wins the SEC championship. If you're good enough to win the SEC East, you're good enough to win the SEC championship, and you're good enough to get into College Football Playoff. The Gamecocks might have some work to do to fill in the parts on the defensive front and in the secondary, and it all goes to pot if the offense has to turn to a No. 2 quarterback, but it's time to come up with an 11-1 type of regular season with a trip to Atlanta to follow.

Key game: Sept. 13 vs. Georgia. Considering Missouri and Tennessee have to come to Columbia, and there's a week off before dealing with Florida, battling Georgia might turn out to decide the SEC East title in one way or another. Beating Texas A&M in the opener is a must, especially at home, and going to Auburn is rough, but the Gamecocks can afford a loss in interdivisional play. If they lose to the Bulldogs, they can't make a mistake the rest of the way and might need some help to get to Atlanta.

2013 Fun Stats:
- 3rd Quarter Points: South Carolina 111 – Opponents 26
- Interceptions Thrown: Opponents 18 – South Carolina 4
- Fourth Down Conversions: South Carolina 21-of-30 (70%) – Opponents 13-of-21 (62%)

- 2014 South Carolina Preview - What You Need To Know & Top Players