by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

Before last season, only Florida, Georgia and Tennessee had won the SEC East since the league split into divisions in 1992. That stranglehold by those three traditional powers finally ended in 2010 when the Gamecocks clinched their first division crown with an emphatic 36-14 rout vs. Florida in “The Swamp” on November 13. And while that monumental victory was one of the greatest wins in program history, South Carolina ended the season on another downtick. The Gamecocks got trounced by the eventual BCS national champs Auburn 56 -17 in the SEC title game in the Georgia Dome, followed by 26-17 setback vs. Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl in the same stadium, losing their third straight bowl game and finishing 9-5. Talk about buzzkill. There is undeniably sufficient returning talent—buoyed by another highly-regarded recruiting class—to repeat as the SEC East champs. Still-dissatisfied Spurrier believes there is plenty of room for growth in 2011.

“We were not that strong of a team at times, we didn’t play super duper all the time,” Spurrier says. “Heck, we don’t deserve much preseason ranking, we only finished seventh in the conference in both offense and defense.”

But since mercurial (to put it nicely) QB Stephen Garcia was reinstated in late May after serving his fifth suspension, Spurrier’s troops have been deservedly annointed the preseason choice in the East, especially with Florida breaking in a brand new coaching staff in the post Urban Meyer era and floundering Georgia trying to rebound from its first losing campaign since 1996.

Six starters return to a loaded, well-diversified attack (31 ppg), directed by mobile, fifth-year sr. Garcia (3,059 YP, 20 TDs, 14 ints., 222 YR), who significantly improved his decision-making and leadership skills (at least on the field) in 2010. If Garcia has another “relapse,” Spurrier won’t hesitate to insert promising 6-1 true soph Conner Shaw (23 of 33 LY), who has a better grasp of the system in his 2nd campaign. Garcia is blessed with two of the nation’s premier game-changers in brilliant soph RB Marcus Lattimore (2010 National Frosh of Year amassed 1,197 YR, 17 TDs despite missing 2 ½ games due to injury)—who has added 15 lbs. of muscle to help withstand the pounding—and dazzling 6-4 jr. WR Alshon Jeffery (88 grabs, 17.2 yds. per catch, 9 TDs), who was a finalist for LY’s Biletnikoff Award. Experienced RBs Kenny Miles (786 YR L2Ys) and Eric Baker are quality backups, while the WR corps boasts a nice mixture of size (6-4 ball catchers Jeffery, D.L. Moore & Jason Barnes) & compact speedsters, 5-7 soph Ace Sanders (25) and emerging 6-0 soph DeAngelo Smith (spring game star with 3 TD catches). The retooling OL (only two starters back) is once again a major issue (30 sacks LY; 107 in the previous three seasons) even though this is the first time since 2008 that it retains the position coach for a second straight season. Return of veteran, play-calling C T.J. Johnson (27 straight starts), however, should help accelerate the maturation process.

The highly-seasoned defense (23 ppg; eight starters return) has a good chance to be even more rigid vs. the run this season (112 ypg, 3.4 ypc; 3rd in SEC), with the eagerly-anticipated return of outstanding LB Shaq Wilson (leading tackler in 2009; missed LY due to hamstring injury) and successful move of physical jr. DeVonte Holloman from SS to “Spur” LB. The hard-charging DL (SEC-best 41 sacks LY), featuring 6-7, 248-pound, All-SEC DE Devin Taylor (7.5 sacks LY) and DT/DE Melvin Ingram (team-high 9 sacks) is seriously bolstered by the arrival of gifted 6-6, 245-pound frosh DE Jadeveon Clowney, who is considered the nation’s No.1 prospect by most recruiting services. “Signing players like Jadeveon ups our expectations,” beams Spurrier. So, while the rugged front seven continues to wreak havoc, ongoing concerns still exist on a yielding secondary (241.9 ypg, 23 TDs, only 10 ints.; 10th in SEC) that dramatically slipped from it high level ‘09 performance (meager 163 ypg passing, 8th nationally). Coaches are hoping that the move of sr. Akeem Auguste from FS to CB, his natural position, will help tighten the pass defense. Plus, athletic jr. CB Stephen Gilmore (3 ints.) primed for a huge year after a bit of the sophomore slump in 2010, despite making All-SEC LY. There still isn’t much big-game experience at either safety position, so jr. SS D.J. Swearinger (66 tackles) is needed to provide vocal leadership. Sr. PK/P Jay Wooten (North Carolina transfer) must fill the big shoes left by graduated specialist Spencer Lanning (34 of 44 L2Ys), and new ST coach John Butler has been hired to turn around poor coverage teams (ranked 11th & 12th in SEC in kickoff and punt returns LY).

Summary...Sure, the Gamecocks are wearing the proverbial target in the quest for 1st-ever back-to-back division titles. But the schedule can’t be used as an excuse, playing eight games in noisy, sold-out Williams-Brice Stadium (including Florida and Auburn), where they’ve gone 12-2 SU over the last two campaigns. Spurrier’s troops gladly avoid Alabama and LSU from the powerful West, and enjoys a bye week during a rough 3-game road trip commencing in mid-October (trips to Miss. State, Tennessee & Arkansas!). So, if the somewhat-reconfigured secondary and restructured OL pass early litmus tests in division crucial at Georgia on Sept. 10, South Carolina could return to the SEC title game and flirt with its first 10-win campaign since 1984. But if unpredictable Garcia (only 17-13 as starter) has a flame-out instead of providing a spark, all bets are off.

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