Each week, as time and my DVR permits, I will rewatch games from the past weekend with a close, critical eye. First up: South Carolina's game against Southern Miss.
On a scale for all major conference teams, I'd give South Carolina a B for this game. The Gamecocks won relatively easily, but it was not effortless by any stretch. The offense had to work for its yardage, and the defense went through some short stretches where it let Southern Miss drive down the field with little resistance.
Given the team's usual play in openers, especially last year's stink bomb against NC State, I'd give it an A+ by South Carolina's standards. The Gamecocks seldom blow anyone out this badly, even I-AA teams. This is the best looking Carolina team I've seen in a while, and it should be even better once the suspensions end.
Stephen Garcia had one of the best games of his career. He was actually patient in the pocket, something that's been unheard of so far. He never took off to scramble unless there was a legitimate need to, and he showed a command of the playbook that surpasses where he was last year. That's exactly what this team needs out of him, not that there were no nits to pick.
He overthrew some deep passes, though that could have just been first game nerves. He also threw his body around a bit on the end of runs, which is fine against Southern Miss, but doesn't quite work so well in SEC play. Garcia's backup Connor Shaw did not look a first year player by any stretch. He exudes confidence and runs with a smoothness not often seen from quarterbacks. Garcia still gives the team its best chance to win, but Shaw handled himself like a vet.
The receiving corps is easily the best Steve Spurrier has had since 2001. The top guys are big, physical players who have little trouble carving out their space. That said, Alshon Jeffery needs to be careful about pushing off. He could have been flagged several times throughout the game for shoving corners. Tori Gurley and D.L. Moore had nice games in supporting roles, though Moore could stand to pay better attention while blocking. Ace Sanders is the wild card. He's a small, fast guy who will play a Jacquez Green-type role on the team. If he continues to produce, he's the piece that puts the unit over the top.
The offensive line was just OK, though it's worth noting it was missing starting LT Jarriel King. It was fine in pass blocking the USM front four, but it had issues with picking up blitzes. South Carolina countered that with some short and quick passes, but Spurrier always goes deep, and Garcia seldom was able to get off his long throws without at least a hand in his face. The line wasn't terribly good at opening running lanes either. It did better on the outside than between the tackles, but there is still work to be done.
What helps mitigate that last problem is the tough running of Marcus Lattimore. He's not the next Herschel Walker or anything, but he rarely if ever went down on first contact. That trait will serve him well because he'll need to fight through a lot of tackles to make his yardage. I'll predict that Lattimore won't have a stellar YPC because of the weaknesses of the line, but he'll be able to pick up a lot of first downs on third-and-short.
It's no surprise for me to say this, but South Carolina has an outstanding secondary once again. Every time there was a big play on defense, you were hearing the name of at least one defensive back. Perhaps the best example was when safety Akeem Auguste popped a ball free from a receiver's hands and the other safety DeVonte Holloman make a great diving interception. Stephon Gilmore, who looked good running the Wilcat again by the way, was his usual brilliant self as well, locking down his side of the field nicely. It's no fluke that the top three tacklers were those three guys from the defensive backfield. It should get even better once Chris Culliver returns.
Of course, some of that had to do with Southern Miss's style of offense. USM is an uptempo, quick passing kind of team, which meant that the Gamecock front seven didn't play as big a role as it typically will in SEC play. Half the time, it seemed like the ball was out of the quarterback's hands before the linemen even finished their stunts.
The times South Carolina had the most problems stopping the Golden Eagles were when they were playing at their fastest. Again, that's not going to be an issue all that often, but it will be in a few weeks when South Carolina plays Auburn. If this past weekend was any indication, the Gamecocks are going to have big time troubles stopping Auburn's offense.
The rushing defense was good, but I don't know if I'd go so far as to call it outstanding. The Gamecocks registered just three tackles for loss despite Southern Miss having four new offensive linemen and some of the more passive running backs I've ever seen. All three of those TFLs also came from the secondary largely on bubble screens too (Auguste with one and Gilmore with two). The defensive line did show up for the game; I double checked the film just to be sure. However, it was just kind of there. Nothing it did save Chaz Sutton's sack and Devin Taylor's pass breakup was all that notable, and no one from it really stood out. That will need to change against teams that approach the game with a little less finesse.
The linebackers don't factor in as much with this defense because Ellis Johnson generally only employs two of them along with a "spur," his term for a linebacker/safety hybrid player. Damario Jeffery got the start at the spur and was the busiest of them all, but, and I feel like a broken record here, that's because Southern Miss's offense spent far more time exploring the edges than the middle of the field.
The 'backers had their largest influence on the occasional blitzes that Johnson called. USM's line had a bias towards picking up the extra guys, which then allowed single-blocked linemen to get near the quarterback. When South Carolina only rushed four, QB Austin Davis generally had plenty of time to throw (assuming he wasn't getting rid of the ball immediately, as he so often did). Without Shaq Wilson, who may or may not be back, it's unclear if there's a standout in the bunch.
This isn't your older brother who just graduated last year's South Carolina team. Yes, it was "just" Southern Miss, but the Golden Eagles will be a bowl team and should contend for a division title in CUSA.
The offense particularly was the story of the game. Even though USM's defense won't ever get confused for Alabama's, you could still see that all the pieces of the puzzle are there. Garcia might have finally taken that big step forward we've been waiting on, the receiving unit is complete and talented, and Lattimore will help breathe new life into the running game. The offensive line was never going to get fixed entirely in one off season, but it's better than last year's line and probably can improve throughout the year.
The defense should be good again, but I'm not ready yet to say that it will match those of the past couple of years. The backfield is as strong as ever, and don't worry about the over 300 yards of passing allowed. The Eagles' starter Davis managed just 5.53 yards per attempt on 43 throws. USM attempted 57 passes on the night, and 99 yards were from backup QB Martevious Young well after the game had been decided.
The front seven (er, front six?) still has some work to do. Georgia won't be throwing 20 bubble screens on Saturday like Southern Miss did, so the Gamecock line and linebackers will be getting their first real test. Mark Richt isn't likely to have his freshman QB Aaron Murray set the tone by testing that fantastic secondary, especially because A.J. Green will be on the bench still. If the guys in the box can't get more of a push than they did against USM, the veteran Bulldog line and talented running backs will plow through the middle of the defense.
That said, there's plenty of reasons for optimism in Columbia. For now though, keep that optimism set at "cautious." If South Carolina can beat Georgia by more than one score, you can let that dial creep closer to 11 given Florida's craptacular start against Miami (OH).