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NCAA Football Preview - South Carolina Gamecocks

<p>The Gamecocks dug themselves a hole early in the season by dropping their SEC opener at Georgia on Sept. 7, 41-30. From there they responded with four straight wins before being upset by Tennessee on Oct. 19, 23-21, which effectively ended their title chances.</p>

The Gamecocks dug themselves a hole early in the season by dropping their SEC opener at Georgia on Sept. 7, 41-30. From there they responded with four straight wins before being upset by Tennessee on Oct. 19, 23-21, which effectively ended their title chances.

Instead of rolling over after a tough defeat, South Carolina grew stronger over the second half of the season, ending the campaign with six straight wins, including a 27-24 double overtime victory at Missouri and a 31-17 triumph versus bitter rival Clemson.

The squad accepted a bid to the Capital One Bowl, dismissing Wisconsin (34-24) for its third straight bowl win, and it finished the campaign No. 4 in the final AP Poll. Steve Spurrier (77-39 with South Carolina) heads into his 10th season in Columbia with a team ranked No. 9 in the preseason poll.

2014 ANALYSIS:

OFFENSE: The Gamecocks had a very efficient offense a season ago, putting up 34.1 ppg and 452.3 ypg. A big reason for the unit's strong play was the presence of senior quarterback Connor Shaw (.634 completion percentage, 2,447 passing yards, 24 TDs, INT, 558 rushing yards, six TDs). Despite his departure the offense will enjoy plenty of continuity with eight returning starters.

Incumbent quarterback Dylan Thompson gained valuable experience playing behind Shaw the last few years and saw a decent amount of playing time in 2012 and 2013 (18 total TDs). Spurrier is confident that Thompson is ready to take on full-time duties under center.

"We really believe he's a very good player and has a chance to lead us to a big season," Spurrier said. "He's a fifth-year player. He's been to all the games. He's 3-0 as a starter. He was the only quarterback in the nation to beat UCF (last season). He's got to pack his college career into one season, and he's the type of young man who really wants to make the most of it."

The presence of Mike Davis in the backfield will take plenty of pressure off of Thompson. Davis was a work horse as a sophomore with 203 carries for 1,183 yards and 11 touchdowns while adding 34 receptions for 352 yards. The return of four starters along the offensive line will go a long way in helping Davis and Thompson as well.

In the absence of Bruce Ellington (49 receptions, 775 yards, eight TDs), there will be more targets in the passing game to go around for Damiere Byrd (34 receptions, 575 yards, four TDs), Nick Jones (27 receptions, 281 yards, five TDs) and Shaq Roland (25 receptions, 455 yards, five TDs), as well as Davis coming out of the backfield.

DEFENSE: South Carolina has been known for its great defense over the past two seasons, and while the unit wasn't quite dominant in 2013, it was still impressive in allowing just 20.3 ppg and 350.0 ypg while forcing 30 turnovers. Losing All-American defensive end Jadeveon Clowney certainly doesn't help (other important pieces from last season Kelcy Quarles, Jimmy Legree and Victor Hampton are also gone), but there's still a lot of talent for Spurrier and defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward to work with.

All three starting linebackers are back in the fold. Skai Moore led the team with 56 tackles and four interceptions, while Kaiwan Lewis (54 tackles, two INTs) and Sharrod Golightly (47 tackles, 6.0 TFL, two FR) were solid as well. Marquis Roberts (48 tackles) was also a big factor as just a freshman.

Brison Williams (45 tackles, INT) is the only returning starter in the secondary. Senior Sidney Rhodes is the veteran member of the defensive back clan that boasts three sophomores and six freshmen.

Darius English and Gerald Dixon Jr. saw limited action as freshmen last year playing behind Clowney and Quarles but will have their chance to shine this season stepping into the starting lineup.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Elliot Fry returns as the kicker after a strong 15-of-18 field goal showing in 2013 (including 9-of-10 from inside of 40 yards). Tyler Hull is back as the punter, looking to improve upon his 37.8-yard average.

Pharoh Cooper acted as the primary return specialist as a freshman in 2013 and more of the same is expected this season, although he picked up a modest 399 yards on 25 combined punt and kickoff returns.

OUTLOOK: The Gamecocks are not without their concerns heading into the new season, especially having to move on from their veteran leader under center and arguably the most dominant defensive force in the country, but most other SEC teams dealing with similar roster turnover issues, leaving South Carolina in relatively good shape with their current crop of players.

The preseason coaches poll voters don't seem overly concerned with the state of the Gamecocks by placing them at No. 9, just slightly ahead of Georgia (No. 12) as the favorites in the SEC East. Spurrier, as always, is taking his team's expectations in stride.

"We got a pretty good team, we think," Spurrier said. "Most of the magazines got us about nine, 10, 11 in the country, something like that. Hopefully we can live up to (those) predictions."

South Carolina opens up with a three-game homestand, which could be crucial if it can take care of business against Texas A&M on opening night (Aug. 28) and Georgia (Sept. 13). After that stretch, its toughest league bout will come at Auburn on Oct. 25 before having to end the regular season at Clemson (Nov. 29).

The SEC East is in a state of flux with Georgia and Missouri experiencing high turnover, Florida bouncing back from a terrible season and Vanderbilt going through a coaching change, so this is the year for Spurrier's squad to break free and make it back to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2010. Even if the Gamecocks can't accomplish that feat, another double-digit win campaign appears well within reach.

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