THREE THINGS WE KNOW
1. The defense will get pressure in opponents' backfields.
It's sounding like a broken record, but here's yet another SEC team with a good defensive line. Last year Steve Spurrier joked (at least I think he was joking) that he might beg DE Cliff Matthews to stay around and not go into the draft, but it wasn't necessary as Matthews decided to stick around on his own. Matthews, as you may know, was fourth in the SEC in sacks last year. Ladi Ajiboye starts beside him at tackle and probably doesn't get the attention he should. Shaq Wilson, South Carolina's top tackler from '09, will take the blitzing duties that Eric Norwood had last year when he placed sixth in the conference in sacks. Norwood was perhaps the best Gamecock defender of the last decade, so he won't be easy to replace. Still, Wilson should fill in admirably. It will once again be tough to move the ball on the Gamecock defense.
2. Spurrier will finally have his receiving unit.
Spurrier's offense needs a great receiving corps to work. Alshon Jeffery lived up to his recruiting hype as a freshman last year, qualifying for that "great" designation. It's a good news/bad news situation from there though, as senior Moe Brown and freshman Tori Gurley stepped up as the next two guys in line. With Brown, it's that he's gone this year; with Gurley, it's that as an unheralded prep school transfer, he was placed behind Jeffery on the depth chart and played his same position. There will be no such logjam this year with Jeffery and Gurley slated to play with each other from the start. Jason Barnes is a big option at the third receiver position, and Weslye Saunders can punish defenses who leave him open from the tight end spot. The top line of the Gamecocks' depth chart at receiver is the best it's been under Spurrier.
3. Stephon Gilmore headlines a great secondary.
Gilmore came to Columbia last year as one of the most highly touted freshmen ever to show up on campus. He came through on that promise, starting all 13 games and earning Freshman All-American honors. South Carolina only lost one of its top eight from last year's pretty good secondary, setting the stage for even better things this year. The one question is regarding Chris Culliver, who moved from safety to corner in the spring and suffered a shoulder injury. Changing positions and dealing with injuries is not a normal recipe for success, but Culliver earned third team All-SEC honors and is good enough to be able to get on track. Ellis Johnson has excelled at putting together good secondaries at South Carolina, and this year is no exception.
THREE THINGS WE DON'T KNOW
1. What to expect out of Stephen Garcia.
It's one of those things that everyone will talk about in regards to South Carolina, but that doesn't make it any less true. Sometimes Garcia is great; sometimes he's not. Despite being second in the league in passing yards last season, he still had issues with accuracy and learning when to stay in the pocket and when to give up and run. Given that the quarterback is the single most important part of a Spurrier offense, nearly everything about this year rides on Garcia's improvement and consistency. The defense will be there. The offense must contribute and avoid putting the defense in bad situations, and a lot of that rests on Garcia's shoulders.
2. How good the offensive line will be.
The biggest Achilles heel for the Gamecock offenses of recent years has been its offensive line. Mediocre line play has hamstrung the quarterbacks and helped to keep the South Carolina run game near the bottom of the SEC. Shawn Elliot is the new O-line coach, the third in three years. He comes to Columbia after spending literally every year after high school at Appalachian State, first as a player and then as a coach. That means he helped coach the Mountaineers' three straight national champion teams from 2005-07; it also means he hasn't coached a game on the Div. I-A level. The NFL-hyped Jarriel King and other talented guys provide some hope, but at this point, a good line in Columbia is something I'll have to see to believe.
3. Whether special teams will be special.
Ninth in punt returns. Tenth in net punting. Tenth in kickoff coverage. Eleventh in kickoff returns. Eleventh in punt coverage. It'd be nice if those were national ranks, but instead they are South Carolina's SEC ranks from 2009. The lone bright spot for South Carolina's special teams was Spencer Lanning, who hit 17 of 20 field goals last year, with one miss being from 50+ yards. To their credit the Gamecocks blocked five kicks/punts, something special teams coordinator Shane Beamer's father Frank would be proud of. However, the poor ranks in nearly everything else keep the main offensive and defensive units at a disadvantage versus their peers around the conference. Something must be done to shore up the coverage and punting if South Carolina is to win its first SEC East title.