Season report card: South Carolina Gamecocks

South Carolina dipped to 7-6 in 2014 after winning 11 games each of the previous three seasons. The hardest part for everybody associated with the program was the way the Gamecocks lost games. They collapsed in the fourth quarter. Still, they did manage to win their fourth straight bowl game and secure their seventh straight winning season.

Offense: B. There was a lot to like about what the Gamecocks did offensively. They averaged 32.6 points per game, the second-highest figure in school history. And in conference games, they were even better, finishing third in the league with an average of 34 points per game. Senior quarterback Dylan Thompson was one of the SEC’s more underrated players. He set a school record with 3,564 passing yards, which also led the league, and he accounted for 31 touchdowns, tying Connor Shaw’s school record from a year ago. Senior guard A.J. Cann was a first-team All-American, and sophomore receiver Pharoh Cooper emerged as one of the more versatile playmakers in the country. What the Gamecocks didn’t do was finish games. They were haunted by not being able to pick up critical first downs in the fourth quarter to protect leads.

Defense: F. The Gamecocks were torched for 52 points and 680 yards in their season-opening loss to Texas A&M, and the flood gates would remain wide open the rest of the way. In fairness, South Carolina was plugging in a lot of new faces on defense, particularly up front, but rarely seemed to be in position, didn’t tackle well and generated virtually no pass rush. At times, the Gamecocks almost looked disinterested, and it showed in their stats. They finished 13th in the SEC in total defense (432.7 yards per game) and 12th in scoring defense (30.4 points per game). Most glaring were the blown leads. They lost three games in which they squandered two-touchdown leads in the fourth quarter and gave up 34 or more points in six of their eight SEC contests.

Special teams: C. Overall, the Gamecocks’ special teams units were spotty at best. They generated very little in the return game and were 10th in the league in net punting. Sophomore place-kicker Elliott Fry was money on the shorter kicks. He was 11-of-12 on field goals under 40 yards and didn’t miss an extra point. But on field goals of 40 yards or longer, he was just 7-of-13. The reason this grade’s not lower is because the Gamecocks made two huge plays on special teams to escape against Florida, and in essence, save their season. Gerald Dixon Jr. blocked a 32-yard field-goal attempt with 3:31 to play, and Carlton Heard then blocked a punt with 46 seconds left to set up the tying touchdown and send the game into overtime.

Coaching: C-minus. The Gamecocks lost their edge, and Steve Spurrier himself admitted that the commitment across the board wasn’t what it should be. That always goes back to the head coach. Even so, Spurrier was as sharp as ever calling plays for much of the season, and the Gamecocks broke a handful of school records. He was at his Hall of Fame best in the win over Georgia, and yet, would also like to have a few play-calls back in some of those close losses. Defensively, nothing went right. There seemed to be chemistry problems on the staff. The Gamecocks didn’t always play smart or hard, and there weren’t a lot of answers along the way. Spurrier hasn’t ruled out making changes on his defensive staff after seeing the bottom fall out in 2014.

Overall: C-minus. Judging by some of the grumbling among South Carolina fans, you’d think 7-6 seasons in Columbia are as foreign to them as snow storms in July. Those same fans might want to check the history books. Spurrier has raised the profile of this program by leaps and bounds, not to mention the expectations. It was a “bad” year, and the Gamecocks still managed to beat Florida and Georgia and win their fourth straight bowl game. Before Spurrier arrived, they’d only won a total of three bowl games in their history. Nonetheless, this was a team that started the season ranked in the top 10 nationally and never came close to playing like a top-10 team. It was a disappointing season no matter how you slice it, and even Spurrier wondered afterward if it was time for him to walk away. Ultimately, he didn’t want to go out like that and is re-energized about getting the Gamecocks back to national prominence.