Gamecocks continue to build toward title

COLUMBIA — One question that circulates around athletics is, “Is it harder to build a championship program or to maintain one?”

Well, the South Carolina Gamecocks are about to find out.

Coming off their best season in school history, a campaign in which they won 11 games for the second straight year and produced their highest final national ranking, the Gamecocks will try to build on that momentum in 2013. The ultimate goal of winning an SEC Championship has barely eluded Carolina over the past three seasons, but the squad will head into the fall focused on reaching that lofty goal again this season.

As one of only four BCS schools, along with Alabama, Oregon and Stanford, that has recorded 11-win seasons in each of the last two campaigns, Carolina expects to once again be the hunted, rather than the hunter.

Buoyed by the return of 36 lettermen, including a dozen starters from a team that went 11-2, captured the Outback Bowl and finished as high as No. 7 in the Coaches’ poll, the Gamecocks, under ninth-year head coach Steve Spurrier, have solidified the program to a point where they are able to re-load, rather than rebuild. Led by the nation’s top defensive player and a Heisman Trophy candidate in Jadeveon Clowney, Carolina figures to be one of the favorites in the SEC East and a preseason top-10 candidate again in 2013.

Once again, the road to Atlanta and the SEC Championship Game is a difficult one. However, at least on paper, this year’s schedule appears a bit more manageable, as it does not feature a gauntlet similar to the one the Gamecocks faced in 2012 when they had contests versus Georgia, at LSU and at Florida in consecutive weeks, a stretch that proved to be Carolina’s undoing.

After a non-conference Thursday night opener against neighboring North Carolina, the Gamecocks will travel to Georgia for a key early SEC Eastern Division showdown in which Carolina will try to make it four-straight over the Bulldogs. Much-improved Vanderbilt visits Columbia the following week. After a non-conference trip to UCF, the Gamecocks embark on a stretch of six-consecutive SEC contests, beginning with a home game against Kentucky. Carolina then has three-straight road tilts — at Arkansas, Tennessee and Missouri — that will test their mettle before wrapping up the conference slate with back-to-back home battles with Mississippi State and Florida, the latter of which could decide the East.

The regular season ends with a pair of non-conference home games against in-state opponents on the opposite ends of familiarity. The Gamecocks will meet Coastal Carolina for the first time ever, then will try to make it five-straight against Clemson when the teams meet for the 111th time on November 30 in Columbia.

The Carolina offense officially returns six starters, including four on the offensive line, from a squad that averaged 31.5 points per game a season ago. Gone are playmakers like Marcus Lattimore and Ace Sanders, along with center T.J. Johnson who started every game over the past four seasons, and solid contributors in Justice Cunningham and D.L. Moore. Led by a pair of experienced quarterbacks in Connor Shaw, the only senior skill position player on the depth chart, and junior Dylan Thompson, the Gamecocks have as good of tandem QB’s as anyone in the country. The Gamecocks return 42 percent of their rushing yards, 96 percent of their passing yards and 54 percent of their receiving yards from a year ago. Along with the signal-caller, the strength of this year’s offense could be in a still young, but experienced offensive line.

The Carolina defense returns five starters from a unit that ranked in the top 25 in the four major statistical categories a year ago — scoring defense (13th), rushing defense (17th), passing defense (21st) and total defense (11th). The Gamecocks will have a completely different look to their linebacking corps, as Reginald Bowens, DeVonte Holloman, Damario Jeffery, Quin Smith and Shaq Wilson, who combined for 99 career starts, all moved on following graduation. Carolina will also be without starters Byron Jerideau and Devin Taylor along the defensive line, and standout safety D.J. Swearinger.

However, the cupboard is certainly not bare. Any unit that can feature an athlete like the 6-6, 272-pound Clowney, a unanimous All-American and legitimate candidate for every post-season award in 2013, including the Heisman Trophy, is one to be reckoned with. Clowney will be joined up front by Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton. The secondary features three returning starters in cornerbacks Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree and safety Brison Williams. Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward is confident the talent level is there and the experience will come, but the goal will be to develop some leaders among the unit, which started in the spring.

Special teams coach Joe Robinson returns for his second season with the Gamecocks. He will be challenged this fall to find replacements for kicker Adam Yates, deep snapper Walker Inabinet, holder Seth Strickland and punt returner extraordinare Ace Sanders.

The Gamecocks will be looking for improvement in all facets, including the punt team and kickoff return unit that feature specialists Tyler Hull and Bruce Ellington, respectively.


— Courtesy South Carolina Sports Information