Bill Connelly’s preview of South Carolina is posted here. It’s worth a read, even if Bill thinks the Gamecocks’ future this season is uncertain (hint: the threat of regression to the mean rears its ugly head in an area or two). What I’m intrigued about, though, isn’t the overall picture, but the inferences that might be drawn from certain factual points he lays out.
Take this bit about South Carolina’s great running back:
South Carolina rode Marcus Lattimore to a huge win over Georgia, and he saved them in an upset bid by Navy. Then they got incredibly average totals from him for four weeks and struggled. Then they lost him for the season and, in terms of overall quality, didn’t regress at all.
This, about Alshon Jeffery:
The Gamecocks saw significant regression from their No. 1 receiver, Alshon Jeffery, whose games generally fit into three categories: 1) Dominance (he caught nine of 12 passes for 233 yards against Georgia and Nebraska), 2) Short Stuff Only (he caught 13 of 19 passes versus Mississippi State, Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida, but for only 77 yards), and 3) Disappearing Act (he caught four of 13 passes for 63 yards versus Vanderbilt and Clemson).
And, finally, this about the defense:
The uncertainty does not stop on offense. Despite a mediocre run defense (49th in Rushing S&P+, 88th in Adj. Line Yards), South Carolina fielded a wonderfully successful defense primarily because nobody could throw the ball on them. The Gamecocks ranked fourth in the country in Passing S&P+, and they were absolutely devastating after the first couple of weeks of the season.
That’s not an understatement. A look at last year’s game log of SC’s defensive passer rating reveals only one game all season where the Cocks didn’t show up: Georgia, which posted a 175.98. All the slagging Aaron Murray took for his turnovers in that game obscures the fact that he was the only quarterback who ripped that defense (South Carolina held nine teams under 100 last season; check out Kentucky’s passer rating). It’s the mother of all outliers. Honestly, the Georgia game colored my perception of the Gamecock defense.
Bottom line – the Dawgs played the Bizarro ‘Cocks last season. The question I’ve got is how much of that was due to suspensions (“I sort of always liked playing them that second game because you could always count on them having two or three key players suspended.”) and how much of it can we chalk up to timing? Georgia fans have always felt that playing South Carolina early in the season meant Georgia was getting its best punch, although to Spurrier’s credit, his team has played more formidable late season ball in the past two years. Lattimore’s and Jeffrey’s numbers would seem to suggest that factor was still in play. Is it reasonable to wonder if a game later in the season might tone the offensive numbers down somewhat?
Ah, you say, but it’s the opposite story with the Carolina passing defense. The low point was in that second week Georgia game. True. But, first, it’s still an effort that’s seriously out of line with what was accomplished the rest of the year (although you can argue the ‘Cocks didn’t see many above average passing attacks besides Georgia in 2011) and, second, a few things have changed since then.
Consider it a red flag, then, that a defense so reliant on its pass defense must replace its best defensive end (Melvin Ingram: 15.0 tackles for loss, 10 sacks), its best defensive tackle (Travian Robertson: 8.0 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks), its most successful attacking linebacker (Antonio Allen: 9.5 tackles for loss, three interceptions, four forced fumbles), and its top three cornerbacks, including star Stephon Gilmore (four interceptions, seven passes broken up). Is there star power returning? Absolutely. But when you have a rather one-dimensional defense, and you lose a lot from that dimension, it is cause for concern.
I’m like Bill in one regard; I don’t know exactly what to expect from Spurrier’s team this season. As Bill points out, for all the ups and downs, South Carolina’s story in 2011 was that it was able to keep on keeping on. But I’m wondering if the move to the sixth week of the season might give Grantham’s defense a leg up and wind up being the real scheduling story of the 2012 edition of the SEC East.
Some better special teams play wouldn’t hurt, of course.