Can South Carolina Break Through in 2010?

This morning, cocknfire took a look back at the 2009 South Carolina Gamecocks. This afternoon, I want to take a look at their chances at finally contending in the SEC under Steve Spurrier.

To measure this, I took a look at South Carolina's rank within the conference in several important categories and how it compares with where the SEC champ ended up. I limited things just to SEC play, though, so that all of the conference's cupcake games get filtered out.

First, let's take a look at the defense. The general feeling about South Carolina is that the defense is generally there, but the offense is letting it down. Just how true has that been during Spurrier's tenure?

This is somewhat unfair as four of the five years the SEC champ was also thenational champ, but that's the cost of admission in this league. In this table the numbers by themselves are Carolina's rank and the numbers in parenthesis are the ranking of the SEC champ for the same category. Bold cells indicate years in which the Gamecocks ranked higher than the conference winner.

Season Tot. Def. Scor. Def. Rush Def. Pass Def. Sacks
2005 9 (6) 8 (3) 12 (7) 3 (4) N/A
2006 8 (4) 4 (3) 7 (1) 7 (9) 4 (2)
2007 8 (3) 8 (4) 12 (2) 2 (7) 11 (2)
2008 5 (3) 7 (1) 6 (4) 4 (5) 2 (8)
2009 4 (2) 7 (1) 6 (1) 3 (6) 6 (3)
Average 6.8 (3.8) 6.8 (2.4) 8.6 (3.0) 3.8 (6.2) 5.75 (3.75)
Avg. Difference 3.2 4.4 5.6 -2.4 2
Best By SC 4 4 6 2 2
Worst By Champ 6 4 7 9 8

 

It's true for the most part that South Carolina's defense has been good, but it has never really been up to the standards set by the conferene champions. At some point in time the Gamecock D has been ranked as good or better than the worst that a conference champ has done, but it's never done it all in one year. For the most part, South Carolina has been a couple notches down from title-winning material on average.

The one exception is passing defense, which is the one category where Carolina consistenly beat the conference champ. The one small issue with that distinction is that it's based solely on yardage. Take a look one column to the left. South Carolina's rushing defense has been consistently middle of the SEC pack at best, and when a vulnerability in rushing defense shows itself like that, it doesn't provide much incentive for opponents to throw it around much. Especially since the secondary has been South Carolina's clear strength on defense most years.

So the defense hasn't been elite, but it's been pretty good. What about the offense?

Season Tot. Off. Scor. Off. Rush Off. Pass Off. TO Margin
2005 10 (4) 6 (3) 11 (3) 7 (6) 5 (3)
2006 7 (4) 8 (4) 7 (2) 5 (7) 6 (4)
2007 6 (3) 8 (2) 12 (2) 2 (7) 9 (1)
2008 7 (1) 7 (1) 12 (1) 3 (6) 9 (1)
2009 8 (3) 11 (3) 12 (4) 2 (6) 9 (2)
Average 7.6 (3.0) 8.0 (2.6) 10.8 (2.4) 3.8 (6.4) 7.6 (2.2)
Avg. Difference 4.6 5.4 8.4 -2.6 5.4
Best By SC 6 6 7 2 5
Worst By Champ 4 4 4 7 4

 

It's a very similar story, only worse. The passing offense has been better than what the SEC champ achieved most years, but that's likely a side effect of having a putrid rushing game (and playing catch up, which eventual champs don't tend to do much).

In each of the other categories besides passing, South Carolina's best finish has been below the worst finish of any conference winner of the past half decade. The average differences are all wider than those in the defense table, which certainly lends credence to the belief that the offense is letting down the defense.

So what about 2010? Based on the average differences, the largest problem areas are rushing offense, rushing defense, scoring offense, and turnover margin.

The rushing offense is buoyed to a degree by getting all three of last year's top rushers back with the addition of 5-star recruit Marcus Lattimore. Then again, if the guys coming back combined with Stephen Garcia (who was fourth in net yardage) to be the worst rushing attack in the conference, how good is that?

The rushing defense may not be as big a concern as the average difference makes it out to be. Take a look at the total defense numbers. South Carolina has been improved there the last two seasons, even ranking in the top 15 in the nation in the category over that span. The yards allowed have to come from somewhere, and if teams are reluctant to challenge the secondary, then the rushing totals are going to be up.

Scoring offense and turnover margin are tied to a degree since you lose opportunities to score when you lose the ball. The Gamecocks have yet to rank better than fifth in the conference in fewest turnovers lost since Spurrier took over, and all but one year they've finished in the bottom half of the league. A lot of that is tied to Garcia's maturation, which apparently didn't increase too much in spring ball.

In short, the offense must get much better and the defense must take a couple steps forward for the Gamecocks to be real contenders. Nothing about the team as-is says "real shot at SEC title," not even the defense. Granted improvements on one side of the ball should help the other in a virtuous circle effect, but simply straightening out Garcia or shoring up the rushing defense alone will get the job done.

The whole team must make noticeable steps forward for this to finally be South Carolina's year. Impossible? No. But in a conference where you have to be among the nation's best at just about everything to be a title contender, I can't recommend picking the Gamecocks even to win the SEC East, much less the whole conference, based on what I've looked at today.

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