Gamecocks reporters for The State — Josh Kendall, David Cloninger, Neil White and Dwayne McLemore — tackle the issues facing the Gamecocks and SEC teams this season
IS THIS USC’S BEST TEAM EVER?
Cloninger: No. It’s hard to classify this team as the best when the likes of Stephon Gilmore, Melvin Ingram, Alshon Jeffery and Marcus Lattimore played on previous teams. I think it will be in the discussion in later years, but it won’t break any win totals set by previous teams.
McLemore: Maybe. The expectations have never been higher, as noted by the preseason rankings. The 2010, 2011 and 2012 teams were each on the verge of a BCS bowl. This year’s team still has a lot to prove.
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White: Come on, teams are judged once a season is over. It is too early to proclaim anything before the first result is in. Until then, I’m holding onto the 1975 team as the best ever because Jeff Grantz slipped me 20 bucks to say so.
Kendall: That’s a tough leap for me to take. In the past three years, this team has lost two first-round NFL draft picks in Stephon Gilmore and Melvin Ingram, a second-rounder in Alshon Jeffery and maybe the most influential player in school history in Marcus Lattimore. Throw in Ace Sanders’ departure, and that’s a lot of play-making gone. In its place, there is talent, but so much of it is young.
SEC EAST CHAMPS?
Cloninger: South Carolina. I think the Gamecocks beat Georgia in Week 2 and while they won’t go undefeated (I’m picking the Arkansas game as an upset), USC would still have the tiebreaker over the Bulldogs. USC will face Florida for the SEC East title on Nov. 16 and have its trip to Atlanta booked by Nov. 17.
McLemore: South Carolina will beat Georgia and go on to win the SEC East. The Gamecocks’ conference schedule sets up as more favorable than the Bulldogs, who face LSU in a divisional crossover game.
White: Everybody else says the winner of the game between South Carolina and Georgia in the season’s second week will have a leg up in this race. But my answer is Vanderbilt. Hear me out. In James Franklin’s first two seasons, the Commodores have gone from two wins to six wins to nine wins. If my math is correct, and Vandy improves at the same rate, that translates to 12 or 13 wins.
Kendall: Georgia. The Bulldogs lost a lot of very good defensive players, but it’s not like those defensive players did them any good last year in a 35-7 thumping against the Gamecocks. This year, Georgia’s marquee players are on offense, where the Bulldogs have an abundance of offensive line talent and two of the best running backs in the league in Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. If Georgia snaps its three-game losing streak against the Gamecocks, it can then afford to drop a game down the line, which it probably will against LSU or Florida.
SEC WEST CHAMPS?
Cloninger: Alabama. The Crimson Tide’s only question-mark game is at Texas A&M on Sept. 14, and since the Aggies were the only team to beat the Tide last year, Alabama’s been waiting for this one. Even if Johnny Manziel plays, I think the Tide wins.
McLemore: Alabama will get revenge on Texas A&M on Sept. 14. After that it should be mostly cruise control for the Crimson Tide, with a home game against LSU the only tough task.
White: Alabama. Who else would I pick?
Kendall: Alabama. Because they are Alabama. I’ve said it before, and I seem to be the lone voice here, but I’ll keep saying it: This is getting boring.
Cloninger: Alabama. The Tide are too good, too powerful and are used to winning. I don’t think it will be on the level of Auburn’s 56-17 romp against USC in 2010, but Alabama will win in Atlanta and head to yet another BCS championship game.
McLemore: Alabama outlasts South Carolina 31-24 with a last-minute drive in the Georgia Dome. It’s the Gamecocks’ first loss of the season, leaving the team in line for a BCS game.
White: Alabama. Who else would I pick?
Kendall: Alabama. The Eastern Division champ will have a puncher’s chance in Atlanta, as Georgia proved a year ago when it came within 5 yards of upsetting the Crimson Tide. However, it seems foolish to pick against Alabama, which has five of college football’s top 50 players, according to Rotoworld.com’s Josh Norris.
WILL CLOWNEY WIN THE HEISMAN?
Cloninger: No. It’s too hard for a defensive player to win, when an offensive player such as Johnny Manziel or Teddy Bridgewater can touch the ball so much. Clowney can be dominant, an All-American, the force behind a great team, but he’s not going to have the consistent statistics that offensive players will have. Even a season with 20 or more sacks and two or more defensive touchdowns probably wouldn’t be enough to win. If he gets invited to New York for the ceremony, though, that will be a victory.
McLemore: No, but only because of the history of the award going to an offensive player. Heisman voters know who Clowney is. Expect him to break USC’s career sack record and at least be a contender for a trip to New York and the Heisman ceremony.
White: First of all, preseason favorites usually don’t win the Heisman. Just ask Matt Barkley. Of the 78 Heisman winners, 73 of them were quarterbacks or running backs. Clowney will have to knock the helmets off a whole lot of scared quarterbacks and running backs to get real consideration.
Kendall: No. Two reasons. No. 1: It’s too hard for a defensive player to win it. Heisman Pundit.com, the preeminent analyst of these things, didn’t even put Clowney in its preseason watch list top 10 for this reason. No. 2: The numbers Clowney would have to compile to overcome reason No. 1 are going to be too difficult given the amount of attention he will receive from opponents.
SURPRISE BREAKOUT PLAYER FOR USC?
Cloninger: Skai Moore. All of USC’s newcomer linebackers will have to play, and I think Moore will be the one that shows the most consistency and ability from Day 1. He can play either LB spot, and he’ll keep getting his chances as he keeps coming up with reasons to play him.
McLemore: Nick Jones. South Carolina needs another consistent threat at wide receiver, and the junior could provide that. He is reliable and made some big plays down the stretch in 2012 when given a bigger opportunity to play.
White: Patrick Fish. Don’t ask me why. I’m just playing a hunch.
Kendall: Shon Carson. He won’t be the starting tailback job, but and he might not play more than five snaps a game. Still, I think they have a chance to be important snaps. Carson impressed coaches two years ago during fall camp but has barely been on the field since then due to injuries to his knee and wrist. he is a threat to break a big run at any time. My guess is He’ll be dangerous in the screen game, too.where he can give an offense looking for options another one.
WILL USC MAKE IT FIVE IN A ROW AGAINST CLEMSON?
Cloninger: Yes. There are always caveats — the Tigers might be undefeated, USC might not be going to Atlanta afterwards, etc., but I think USC is the better team. Why? Strength up front. The Tigers are stocked with stat-producing offensive players but the Tigers, as usual, don’t have the beef in the lines, or the secondary to stop an SEC team. The Gamecocks are used to beating Clemson. They have the ability to ram the ball down their throats and neutralize Chad Morris’ high-flying offense.
McLemore: Yes. South Carolina will have plenty of motivation to get “one for the thumb” against Clemson. A raucous Williams-Brice crowd and the presence of Clowney will be huge.
White: I know for certain which team will win this bitter rivalry game, and I’ve placed the answer in a hermetically-sealed envelope in a mayonnaise jar on Funk and Wagnalls’ porch. I’ll tear open the envelope Dec. 1 and prove to all of you just what a great seer, sage and soothsayer I am.
Kendall: This deep into making predictions, I guess it’s no time to chicken out now. I’m going to say yes, and the reason goes back to last season. There was little reason to expect South Carolina to beat the Tigers with a backup quarterback in Death Valley, but they did, and convincingly. The Tigers have to come to Williams-Brice Stadium this year, which is reason enough to pick the Gamecocks to extend the streak.
KEY GAME FOR USC?
Cloninger: Oct. 12 at Arkansas. I see it as the game between USC and a perfect season. The Gamecocks have not played well in the Ozarks (2-8 all-time) and despite the Razorbacks breaking in a new coach, I don’t see USC winning. It’s at the perfect time of year — USC, I think, will start 5-0 and be feeling fine, and then the loss happens. The good part of it is that the loss forces the Gamecocks into a corner, and unlike last year in Gainesville, they’ll come out swinging. They’ll get re-adjusted and take their next two games (both on the road), then come back home for the month of November.
McLemore: The Georgia game will be huge, but don’t overlook the Oct. 12 game at Arkansas. It’s the first of three consecutive road SEC games, and the Gamecocks need a win here to build momentum heading to Tennessee and Missouri.
White: Coastal Carolina. The Chanticleers have never played the Gamecocks in football, so there’s not even a record book to throw out the window. And their coach, Joe Moglia, is, like, a billionaire. He could easily buy USC’s game plan on the black market. Heck, he could rent the Seattle Seahawks on their bye week and dress them in teal, bronze and black for the game.
Kendall: It’s clearly the Georgia game. There is no scary opponent from the Western Division (see: LSU last year) lurking after the Georgia game this year. In fact, it’s the Bulldogs who have to play the Tigers this year. South Carolina’s favorable schedule means that if they can beat Georgia a fourth consecutive season, they will be in control of the SEC East. Beyond that, if the Gamecocks are 2-0 after their first two games, they will be able to look ahead at a 10-game stretch in which they probably will be favored in every game.