Last year, the Gamecocks finished 11-2 for the third-straight season under head coach Steve Spurrier. If not for a last-second game-winning field goal by Tennessee’s Michael Palardy in week seven, it would have been the Gamecocks - not the MissouriTigers - who played Auburnfor the SEC Championship. They ranked 4th in the final AP poll after wins over #6 Clemsonin the regular season finale and #19 Wisconsinin the Capital One Bowl.
Jadeveon Clowney. Even if his 40 tackles (11.5 for a loss) last season weren’t enough to match the statistical production of his 2012 season, the 2014 number one overall pick has to get first mention in the “players lost” section. People were quick to jump on Clowney for a perceived lack of effort, saying he fell short of his 54 tackle, 23.5 tackle for loss, 13-sack season from a year before because he took plays off. But really, a lot of it had to with how teams game planned for him: double teams, running away from his side, quick passes. It’s hard to blame a coach for trying to avoid a beast like Clowney. I’m sure you don’t need to see his hit on Michiganrunning back Vincent Smith in the 2013 Outback Bowl again,but I’m also sure you’d like to. He is irreplaceable. The defense also lost a d-tackle who actually out-produced Clowney last season - Kelcy Quarles (39 tackles, 13.5 for loss, 9.5 sacks), and both starting corners (Vic Hampton and Jimmy Legree). On offense, they lost three-year starting QB Connor Shaw, number one wide receiver Bruce Ellington, and guard Ronald Patrick - and that’s all. Everyone else (including second and third-stringers) will be back for the Gamecocks offense. Shaw is a huge loss, but transitioning to a new quarterback is always easier when you’ve got experienced players around him.
What to Watch For
Inexperienced Senior - Quarterback Dylan Thompson has had chances to take over the starting job before - he’s thrown twenty or more passes in a game five times over the last two years. Only two of those games were against SEC competition, and the Gamecocks were 1-1 in those games, so take that stat with a grain of salt. Over the course of his career, mostly in garbage-time relief, Thompson has completed 120 of 218 passes (55%) for 1,827 yards, 14 touchdowns, and five interceptions. It’s hard to say how good he can be since he hasn’t played many truly meaningful snaps in his SC career, but he’ll have a full compliment of experienced skill position players around him, experienced linemen protecting him, and a coaching staff who have worked with him for three years. If he was ever going to find success, it’d be this year.
Even with a slightly more experienced offense, the Gamecocks will have a tough time matching their 11-2 record with so many key members of last year’s defense gone. They have a young defensive core - they’ll only graduate three players from the unit next offseason, so they’ve got that going for them - and the schedulers were kind in 2014, which is also nice. If new starting QB Dylan Thompson turns out to be serviceable, their biggest hurdle will be their road game at Auburnon October 25th. If they can clear that, they look like they could repeat the win total of last season and maybe vie for a spot in the SEC title game as the champion of the weaker East. The Gamecocks just have to avoid the derailing Tennessee(2013)/LSU(2012)/Auburn(2011)-type loss.