Florida is replacing Tim Tebow and Charlie Strong, and it lost as much as or more than anyone did to the NFL Draft. Georgia is starting a freshman quarterback and is installing a completely new defensive scheme. Tennessee is a smoking wreck thanks to coaching turmoil and a nasty bout of attrition. Kentucky is still Kentucky, and Vandy is still Vandy.
If South Carolina can't make a run for the SEC Championship Game this season, when can it?
When you think of Steve Spurrier's great offenses of yore, you generally think of the quarterbacks first. Stephen Garcia may still be looking up at Terry Dean in Spurrier's hierarchy of quarterbacks right now, but he's been in the system for four years now and has no experienced competition. We'll have to wait to see whether he's really grown up by now, but the conditions for success are there.
After the quarterbacks, you probably next go to the dangerous receiving units that caught all those passes. Spurrier's been able to get headliners at South Carolina, from Sidney Rice to Kenny McKinley to Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery will now be flanked by last year's pleasant surprise of Tori Gurley, who played the same receiving position as Jeffery did in '09. Throw in TE Weslye Saunders and junior Jason Barnes, and you've got what could turn out to be Spurrier's best receiving unit in Columbia if no one regresses.
If you're nuanced enough, you'll even remember the great running backs Spurrier had from Rhett to Taylor to Graham, whose rushing yards helped to open up the down field passing game. South Carolina has largely been near the basement in rushing in Spurrier's time there, but things are looking up for '10. Speed backs Kenny Miles and Jarvis Giles complement inside masher Brian Maddox, and all world recruit Marcus Lattimore projects to be better than all of them. Add to that CB Stephon Gilmore's wildcat routine, and the Gamecocks might actually have an effective running game finally.
What you probably don't think of is his offensive lines. That's not to say that they were bad; rather, diagramming protection schemes has never been one of Spurrier's favorite things to do with his time. It's been a chore for Spurrier to get his lines in shape at South Carolina, where he's breaking in his third offensive line coach in three seasons. Even the anonymous opponent's quote in Athlon's magazine agrees, saying that "[i]f they get an offensive line, they will be good. They have not been good there." Tactfully put, coach.
On defense, things have been a bit more stable in Columbia of late. Coordinator Ellis Johnson has a nice cast of characters from Cliff Matthews on the like to Shaq Wilson and Rodney Paulk at linebacker to Gilmore in the secondary. Things can improve rather easily if the unit finds a way to correct last year's problem of dropping 18 interceptions (!) and hang on to a few more.
I have the same kind of feeling about South Carolina winning the SEC East as I did with Ole Miss winning the SEC West last off season: if it's ever going to happen, now sure looks like the time. Unfortunately for the Rebels, they weren't quite as good as projected and Alabama turned out to be the national champion. Thems the breaks sometimes.
For South Carolina to come through, the burden has to be on the offense. The defense will end up performing, and it will probably rank somewhere in the top 20 or so nationally. Four things have to go right for the offense to hold up its end of the bargain.
First, Garcia must play like the experienced junior he is and not like the scattershot sophomore he was a year ago. Second, the receiving corps must improve on the strides it made last year. Third, someone (probably Lattimore) must be a credible threat running the ball on a consistent basis. Fourth, the offensive line must shape up and stop giving Garcia so many reasons to scramble and get himself sacked.
The second and third parts seem like fairly safe bets. The receivers were largely young guys coming into their own last year, and that sort of thing carries over well from one year to the next. You could also do worse than betting on a five-star recruit to come in and play well. Garcia is a big question mark mentally as much as physically, given that his coach won't firmly commit to him and has taken unprovoked shots at him at various times through the off season. The line is too, what with the turnover in the coaching ranks and the fact that South Carolina came out of spring looking like it will be starting a walk on in the unit.
During April's SEC coaches conference call, Spurrier stressed that while his Gamecock rosters will never totally stack up with the conference's powerhouses' rosters, he only has to find 35-45 great players at the top because you can only play 11 at a time. Has Spurrier assembled his 35-45 great players?
If Garcia has matured and the offensive line gels, he just might have. Looking at 2010's SEC East, he couldn't have had better timing.