Today we're looking at South Carolina, which enters the 2013 season as one of the favorites in the Eastern Division.
Coach: Steve Spurrier (208-77-2 overall, 66-37 at South Carolina)
2012 record: 11-2
Key losses: RB Marcus Lattimore, WR Ace Sanders, LB Shaq Wilson, FS D.J. Swearinger, DE Devin Taylor
Newcomer to watch: C Cody Waldrop
Biggest games in 2013: vs. North Carolina (Aug. 29), at Georgia (Sept. 7), vs. Florida (Nov. 16), vs. Clemson (Nov. 30)
Biggest question mark heading into 2013: South Carolina’s offensive line is huge -- the smallest of the projected starters is 314 pounds -- so there should be little issue in opening holes for the running game. However, the group has to improve in pass protection. The unit has given up 68 sacks over the past two seasons. The Gamecocks have particularly struggled against quicker pass-rushers, which is a bit surprising since the line works against Clowney throughout camp and spring practice. There’s some talent at receiver, but it might not develop if the line continues to have trouble containing the rush.
Forecast: South Carolina has put together back-to-back 11-2 seasons for the first time in school history, but all that has gotten the Gamecocks are Capital One and Outback bowl appearances. South Carolina made the SEC title game in 2010, but was edged out in the Eastern Division by Georgia the past two seasons. The Gamecocks are good enough to win the division in 2013 thanks to a favorable schedule, provided they don’t trip up during a mid-October road trip.
The Gamecocks feel they have a star-in-waiting in tailback Mike Davis, who filled in admirably when Lattimore went down with another season-ending knee injury. He’ll be running behind a mammoth offensive line that could be the best run-blocking unit in the league. Quarterbacks Shaw and Dylan Thompson are a solid duo.
The receivers aren’t big, but they are fast and elusive. The group is led by the 5-foot-9, 196-pound Ellington (40 catches last season). Damiere Byrd, Shaq Roland and Nick Jones give the offense the big-play potential it lost when Sanders decided to leave after his junior season.
But it’s on defense where the Gamecocks really shine, and it begins with Clowney -- a Heisman candidate who is projected to be the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2014. He’s a dangerous pass-rusher who can change the game in one play. He’s got help from Quarles, who was a freshman All-American in 2011, and Hampton. Quarles is a run-stuffer which some pass-rush ability. Hampton is South Carolina’s top cover cornerback.
There are questions at linebacker, where the Gamecocks are counting on some unproven players and a key performer, Cedrick Cooper, coming back from a knee injury.
South Carolina avoids LSU, Alabama and Texas A&M. The Gamecocks do play at Georgia in Week 2, and if they win that game the season will likely come down to the Florida game in Columbia.