In retrospect, the warning signs about South Carolina in 2014 were pretty clear. The defensive line was inexperienced, there were potential problems in the defensive backfield and the Gamecocks had to replace both the best defensive player in school history and the best quarterback in school history. Were it not for the fact that practically everyone else returned to a program that had gone 11-2 in three consecutive years, and the fact that the SEC East had been weak stuff for four years running, then the idea of South Carolina as the divisional favorite and a potential playoff contender would have seemed a little far-fetched.
Again, all of that is clear as we look back on the wreckage of South Carolina's 2014 season. Of course, that someone can type "the wreckage of South Carolina's 2014 season" given what the Gamecocks accomplished last year is a sign of how much Steve Spurrier has upped the bar in Columbia. South Carolina beat Georgia and Florida, each for the fourth time in five years, put together its 11th straight non-losing season and won its fourth straight bowl game. Ten years ago, if you had asked any South Carolina fan to take that kind of 7-6 season, it wouldn't have taken long for the fan to eagerly accept.
I'm going to be honest here and do this for the first time this year: I don't think that South Carolina will go 4-8 this year. Perhaps that's the Gamecocks fan in me, and if it is, so be it. But I would have a harder time telling you exactly what South Carolina's record will be this season. I'll have to for my picks post before the season, but the broad outline right now is that nothing between 5-7 and 8-4 would surprise me with this team.
That said: Even aside from the crash-and-burn last year, the skepticism about the 2015 Gamecocks is more than justified. The non-conference schedule includes a game against North Carolina (projected to be a mid- to upper-tier ACC Coastal team) and against Clemson, an outfit getting some scattered playoff buzz. South Carolina gets two of its most winnable conference games at home, which does them no favors, and has to travel to Texas A&M and face the infamously hostile Kyle Field crowd in what could be one swing game. The other draw out of the West is LSU. Even if they get some win they shouldn't (at least to preseason eyes) somewhere along the way, 5-7 is a perfectly reasonable expectation for how 2015 might end.
How would the team get to eight wins? Give them the four on the board right now and then you can pick out possibilities. Spurrier's teams have done well against North Carolina-based teams in openers, and UNC has been known to underperform recently, so put that one in the Gamecocks' column. The Missouri game has become something of a grudge match between those two teams, so maybe they get an upset win there. Spurrier has generally won a game each year he shouldn't and his South Carolina teams have sometimes does better than they should against SEC West teams on the road, so give them the win against Texas A&M. And the Gamecocks beat Florida in overtime in the Swamp last year, so it's not like it's some out of left field idea that they could defeat the Gators in Columbia. Are all those things likely to happen? No, but they also aren't outside the realm of the possible.
As far as the roster goes, this South Carolina team looks something like a mirror image of last year's squad. Eight starters return on the defense, including Skai Moore and seven more of the top ten tacklers from 2014. Sharrod Golightly's team-leading 7.5 tackles for loss and Brison Williams' team-leading four interceptions will be missed, but when you compare it to the desert of returning talent that the Gamecocks defense had last year, co-coordinators Jon Hoke and Lorenzo Ward (yes, he's back) will probably take it.
The offense is where South Carolina is going to struggle. Yes, Pharoh Cooper is great, but who else have the Gamecocks got? The rest of the top five receivers in terms of catches are gone. The good news is that this won't disrupt long-established relationships with likely starter Connor Mitch, who has only attempted six passes wearing a South Carolina uniform. Brandon Wilds had a couple of nice games last year and averaged 5.4 yards a carry, but he still has to prove that he can be an every-down back. The Gamecocks defense might have improved enough to hold down 14-point fourth-quarter leads, but it can only do that if the offense can build those leads to begin with.
And how well the Gamecocks do in 2015 is not just an academic, one-year question. Had 2014 been a successful season, then South Carolina could take a rebuilding year. But given the disaster last year, Steve Spurrier's flailing attempts to quiet down a retirement storm he started and this year's disappointing recruiting results (which actually aren't all that bad compared to the Spurrier Era's historical average), a season in which the Gamecocks scrape by isn't going to cut it. Anything at or below 7-5 is as clear a sign as you can get that the best days are over for Spurrier's South Carolina program. An 8-4 season makes a recovery at best a 50-50 proposition. If the Gamecocks can go 9-3 or better in the regular season, Spurrier at least has a case to make to the fans and recruits. Particularly if he stops saying he's only going to be around two or three more years.
But nine wins is almost fantasy territory for this team. They would have to win practically every marginally winnable game, and avoid upsets along the way. It could happen, but it's not worth counting on, and therein lies the problem for Spurrier and his team. They have to stop digging the hole, even as the hole looks steeper with each passing year.
The perfect season: Connor Mitch has a surprisingly strong season and picks up where Dylan Thompson left off, but with fewer ill-timed mistakes. Pharoh Cooper vaults from All-American contender to Heisman contender, nearing 1,500 receiving yards while becoming a dynamic punt returner. The more experienced defense comes together, and the Gamecocks win four of their first five. South Carolina wins one of the three tougher games on the back end of the schedule (LSU, at Tennessee, Clemson), and ends up with a 9-3 record.
The nightmare: This year's preseason expectations prove to be almost as optimistic as last year's. After a beatdown against North Carolina, South Carolina limps home and gets knocked off by Kentucky. UCF, Vanderbilt and The Citadel become the only winnable games of the year, and a 3-9 campaign prompts Steve Spurrier to retire.
What actually happens: It's worth keeping in mind that Steve Spurrier's last losing college football season was his first year at Duke, in 1987. When sufficiently motivated, he and his teams can spring an upset on just about anybody. But it will probably take an upset or two just to get to .500 in 2015. This could prove to be the Head Ball Coach's toughest attempt at extending his streak of non-losing seasons, at least since his first year at South Carolina a decade ago.