For the first time in six years, MSU will visit Columbia, S.C., to take on a team that it’s lost to six consecutive times, dating back to the 2000 season. This also marks the beginning of a brutal five-game closing stretch for the Bulldogs, who did not fare so well in a similar situation last season, going 1-4 to close out the regular season. Odds are, South Carolina will be a top-10 team when it hosts MSU, and these are the kinds of upsets Dan Mullen needs to get if he’s going to take this program to the next level.
South Carolina Gamecocks (Nov. 2, in Columbia)
• Conference: SEC
• 2012 record: 11-2 (6-2, 3rd Eastern Division)
• Coach: Steve Spurrier (66-37, eight seasons)
• Returning starters: 13 (6 offense, 5 defense, 2 specialists)
• Last meeting: South Carolina, 14-12 (Oct. 15, 2011, in Starkville)
• On the Web: GamecocksOnline.com
After the rascally Spurrier, the first man you think of with this football team is defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. Per some unwritten rule, I’m obligated to link to this clip of him behelmeting Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl last season. But there is much more to Clowney’s game than making big hits, a fact that must leave offensive coordinators pondering a quieter existence in, say, a monastery. Clowney racked up 23.5 tackles-for-loss and 13 sacks as a sophomore, eye-popping numbers that don’t begin to illustrate his dominance. He has gained a greater understanding of the college game and the Gamecocks’ playbook, making him a more savvy player.
In what will be his last year at South Carolina – whoever has the NFL Draft’s No. 1 pick next year won’t dare pass on him – Clowney is a frontrunning Heisman Trophy candidate and anchors a defense that has plenty of solid parts around him. Chaz Sutton, who had 7 TFLs and 5 sacks last year, is the other end and should benefit from all the attention offenses will give Clowney. The secondary should be strong, too, despite the loss of safety D.J. Swearinger. The Gamecocks’ big concern is the loss of all three starting linebackers, but Spurrier has done a fine job of recruiting depth, and he’s got options there. Sophomore Kaiwan Lewis, who made just three tackles in 11 games last year, is expected to take over at middle linebacker. The New Jersey product was a three-start prospect in high school.
SC had one of the nation’s better defenses in 2012, ranking 11th in total defense (315.5 ypg) and 13th in scoring defense (18.2 ppg). That was the first year for Lorenzo Ward at defensive coordinator after Ellis Johnson left for what proved to be an ill-fated stint as the Southern Miss head coach.
Offensively, Spurrier has an intriguing situation at quarterback (what a surprise). Senior Connor Shaw is the unquestioned starter, but when he got hurt last season, Dylan Thompson stepped in and played quite well. The two combined to throw for 2,983 yards, 27 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Shaw is a couple of inches shorter than the 6-foot-3 Thompson, but he’s got experience, grit and is more of a running threat. Last season, Shaw rushed for 435 yards, which ranked second on the team behind tailback Marcus Lattimore.
Speaking of Lattimore, he suffered another bad knee injury last season, then decided to go ahead and get paid for subjecting himself to physical abuse. So Spurrier is hopeful sophomore Mike Davis can take over the rushing load. He got some work last year, gaining 275 yards on 52 carries (5.3 yards per carry). The 5-9, 215-pounder is of the same mold as MSU tailback Josh Robinson, a guy with both power and speed. Davis was a four-star prospect and played in the U.S. Army All-American Game as a high school senior. He’ll share some carries with sophomore Brandon Wilds, who played in 2011 but was redshirted last season with an ankle injury.
The offensive line returns four starters, although there is a freshman at center, Cody Waldrop. The receiving corps is a bit of an unknown, what with Ace Sanders gone. But Bruce Ellington returns and makes up for his lack of size with speed. Size is an issue with this group, but a breakout player this year could be 6-1, 190-pound sophomore Shaq Roland, a high school Parade All-American and SC’s top recruit in the 2012 class.
Look for Ellington to again return kicks, which he was solid at last season, averaging 22.6 yards per return.
For more on the Gamecocks, check out my interview with South Carolina writer David Cloninger from Friday’s LockeDown Corner. Cloninger interview
Up next: Texas A&M