FIVE KEY GAMES
VANDERBILT | This opener is special because the Gamecocks are entering the season ranked in the Top 10 for the first time. It’s also an SEC road game, which no team can ever take for granted.
GEORGIA | The game that generally has served as a conference bellwether arrives later in the season. But it still has huge SEC East ramifications and begins a season-defining three-week stretch.
LSU | The Gamecocks make their first trip to Baton Rouge since 2007, and it’s not going to be an easy one with the Tigers ranked No. 1 in the USA Today preseason coaches poll.
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ARKANSAS | The Razorbacks have convincingly defeated USC three straight seasons, but with this season’s game at Williams-Brice Stadium, the Gamecocks are looking for some payback.
CLEMSON | The Gamecocks have thumped the Tigers the past three seasons, and Steve Spurrier would like nothing more than to keep that state championship streak going.
FIVE KEY PLAYERS
... MARCUS LATTIMORE, RB, JR. | If Lattimore stays healthy, he could put together a serious run for the Heisman Trophy. The USC offense runs through him, and his ability to take control of a game by moving the chains and finish off drives by finding the end zone makes him one of the nation’s best.
... CONNOR SHAW, QB, JR. | Shaw faced a big test last season after Stephen Garcia was dismissed from the team. He led the Gamecocks to seven wins in the final eight games, including a Capital One Bowl victory against Nebraska, by displaying impressive running, passing and leadership skills.
... T.J. JOHNSON, C, SR. | The USC offense averaged 30 points and 374 yards per game last season, and that push began with the offensive line. Johnson anchored that line and is expected to lead this season’s line. The 6-foot-6, 319-pound Johnson triggers an offense that looks to be as proficient in the passing game as the running game.
... JADEVEON CLOWNEY, DE, SO. | The nation’s No. 1 recruit in the 2011 class eased his way into his freshman season, starting one game, but he made a big splash when he was on the field. Tough to block when rushing the passer, he figures to make life even more miserable for opposing quarterbacks this season.
... D.J. SWEARINGER, FS, SR. | As the defense’s leading returning tackler — he had 80 last season — Swearinger has developed a reputation for punishing ball carriers, whether they are running backs or receivers. His experience and leadership in the secondary — his three interceptions are the most of the returnees — should limit the breakdowns in coverage.
FIVE KEY FRESHMEN
... SHAQ ROLAND, WR | He was Mr. Football in the South Carolina high school ranks last season, and he looks to fill the shoes of Alshon Jeffery, who left after three seasons with the most career receiving yards in school history. Roland has the speed, leaping ability and open-field running skills to make big plays right away.
... KWINTON SMITH, WR | At 6-foot-4, Smith arrived on campus this summer and coaches like what they see. On a team with a fleet of smaller receivers, Smith provides a big target. He was also athletic enough to be picked in the MLB draft by the Texas Rangers in the 14th round.
... MIKE DAVIS, RB | The highest-ranked recruit in USC’s class — Rivals.com had him at No. 63 overall nationally — Davis gained 1,923 yards and scored 21 touchdowns as a senior at his Georgia high school. He is the younger brother of former Clemson running back James Davis.
... JORDAN DIGGS, SPUR | The son of former USC defender Shed Diggs, who played from 1984-87, Jordan has the ability to make an immediate impact. Ranked by Rivals.com as the No. 11 safety nationally in 2012, he appears to be a good fit for the spur position behind senior DeVonte Holloman.
... JERELL ADAMS, TE | The athletic and versatile Adams should push his way into playing time at tight end after spending last fall at Fork Union (Va.), a prep school. He’s a rangy 6-6 and a four-star prospect. His competition includes Justice Cunningham and Rory Anderson, a pair of solid contributors from last season.
FIVE STORY LINES
... MARCUS IS BACK | Junior running back Marcus Lattimore was back on the field for the first time in early August since tearing his ACL on Oct. 15. There’s no reason Lattimore’s knee shouldn’t be 100 percent structurally sound. He has used August to make the mental recovery that most knee rehab patients say is the final phase.
... STEVE SPURRIER’S GOOD MOOD | The Gamecocks’ eighth-year coach is entering a big year. He will join the exclusive 200-win club with three more victories, and he could become South Carolina’s all-time winningest coach before the season is complete. Longtime Spurrier observers around the league noticed a pep in the veteran coach’s step at last month’s SEC Media Days, where Spurrier acknowledged his team had a chance for a special season.
... LORENZO WARD LIKES PRESSURE | The first-year defensive coordinator is not brand new to this anymore. He was in charge during the 30-13 win against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl and led the defense in spring practice, but this is the season he will really make his mark. Ward has said his defense will employ more pressure on the quarterback than that of former coordinator Ellis Johnson.
... RIGHT TACKLE STARTER | Sophomore Mike Matulis was listed as the starter coming out of spring practice despite missing all of spring practice because of a shoulder injury. Offensive line coach Shawn Elliott said he will have to deal with competition from Cody Gibson. Matulis started five games last year, including the final four, and Gibson started four.
... REPLACING ALSHON | Alshon Jeffery is gone, but junior Ace Sanders continues to make a good impression. Shaq Roland, one of last year’s most talked about recruits, will compete with fellow incoming freshman Kwinton Smith. Sanders, senior D.L. Moore and sophomore Bruce Ellington are on track to start.
FIVE KEY POSITIONS
... LINEBACKER | A quartet of seniors will mix it up for the two starting spots: Shaq Wilson, Reginald Bowens, Damario Jeffery and Quin Smith. Wilson (52 tackles last season) and Bowens (44 tackles) enter practice as the probable starters. Smith (48 tackles) and Jeffery, who’s moving over from the spur position, figure to be in the mix for playing time.
... PLACE-KICKER/PUNTER | Both spots are up for grabs after the departures of Jay Wooten and Joey Scribner-Howard. Senior Adam Yates and freshmen Landon Ard and Nick St. Germain will compete for place-kicking duties, while junior Mike Williamson, sophomore Patrick Fish and sophomore transfer Tyler Hull are vying for the punting job. None have game experience this level.
... WIDE RECEIVER | With three receiving slots, there are plenty of choices. Ace Sanders, the leading returning receiver with 29 catches last season, looks to have one spot locked up, but it’s going to be wide open for the other two. Bruce Ellington, Damiere Byrd and Nick Jones will push veterans D.L. Moore and D’Angelo Smith for playing time, as will freshmen Shaq Roland and Kwinton Smith.
... RIGHT TACKLE | Two sophomores are going head-to-head at this spot in Mike Matulis (6-5, 274) and Cody Gibson (6-7, 278). Both players showed flashes of great potential last season,. That experience should provide solid depth at this spot.
... BACKUP TAILBACK | Everybody knows Marcus Lattimore is the top dog. But the scramble for carries behind him is going to be intense between senior Kenny Miles and sophomore Brandon Wilds, who stepped up big at various times after Lattimore went down last season, and freshman Mike Davis. Redshirt freshman Shon Carson is out until mid-year with a wrist injury.
FIVE KEY STATS
... 0 | Times the USC football program has compiled three straight SEC winning seasons — something that could change this year. USC has gone 5-3 and 6-2 the past two seasons.
... 268 | Yards per game given up by the defense last season, a figure that ranked third in the SEC, and third in the nation.
... 89 | Percentage of the team’s rushing yards that return from last season, led by tailbacks Marcus Lattimore, Brandon Wilds and Kenny Miles.
... 10 | Players who have earned their diplomas at USC: Akeem Auguste, Reginald Bowens, Qua Gilchrist, Walker Inabinet, T.J. Johnson, Kenny Miles, D.L. Moore, Seth Strickland, Shaq Wilson and Adam Yates.
... 20-3 | USC’s record in its past 23 games at Williams-Brice Stadium.
-- Compiled by Neil White and Josh Kendall