The 2011 South Carolina offense consists of some of the top skill position talent in the country at their respective positions and the offensive line is very experienced. Here are five goals for the USC offense for the upcoming season:
1. Top-Five Team In Rushing Offense In The SEC/Marcus Lattimore Averages 115 Yards Per Game Rushing :
When is the last time the Gamecocks finished among the top-five teams in the SEC in rushing? It's never happened under Steve Spurrier. Since 2005, his first season at the helm, the highest finish for USC in rushing offense is sixth (2006). However, the Gamecocks proceeded to finish last in that category three straight seasons (2007-2009) before rising to eighth in 2010 behind Marcus Lattimore, who finished third in the SEC in rushing (92.1 ypg) as a freshman. In other words, USC's rushing attack in the last six years hasn't been anything to write home about.
So, what's the correct answer to the above question? 2003. In that year, USC finished fourth in rushing offense with an average of 161.42 ypg. Thus, it's been eight years since the Gamecocks cracked the top five in the SEC in rushing offense. But 2011 could snap that stretch of futility with an experienced offensive line (one sixth-year senior; two fifth-year seniors; junior with 27 career starts) and Lattimore, regarded as a dark horse Heisman Trophy contender, leading the way with a potentially strong supporting cast in junior Kenny Miles and impressive freshman Shon Carson.
2. The Quarterbacks Combine for 4,000 Passing Yards:
Last season, Stephen Garcia and Connor Shaw combined to complete 64.7 percent (247 of 382) of their passes for 3,282 yards and 21 touchdowns. Another year of experience for the two signal callers, together with a deeper and more talented wide receiver corps, should produce bigger numbers in 2011. Garcia needs 3,201 yards to become USC's all-time leading passer, while Shaw is expected to see his output grow significantly in his second year with the program.
Wide receivers coach Steve Spurrier Jr. would like to see a more diversified passing attack, which potentially means fewer catches for Alshon Jeffery. But don't expect much of a drop off from his 88 receptions in 2010. Four of USC's top five receivers from a year ago return. D.L. Moore, Jason Barnes and DeAngelo Smith combined for 24 catches in 2010. That trio could double or even triple that output this season. The biggest obstacle facing the wide receivers? There's only one football.
3. Top Three In The SEC In Red Zone Offense:
USC had a very good year in 2010 in the red zone both offensively and defensively, finishing sixth in the former (85.7 percent) and second in the latter (70.0 percent). Offensively, USC scored 38 touchdowns in 56 red zone chances to rank second in the league behind Auburn. This year, with Jeffery and Lattimore a year older, the improvement should been seen in the numbers. The Gamecocks rose from ninth to sixth in red zone offense because of their ability to run the football inside the 20-year line.
Here's the telling statistic: In 2009, USC had 11 rushing touchdowns in the red zone, less than one per game. A year ago, the Gamecocks more than doubled that number to 23 rushing TDs in the red zone. Overall, the amount of red zone touchdowns increased from 23 to 38. Thank you, Marcus. The key to improving the red zone efficiency is reducing the number of turnovers. USC threw three interceptions inside the 20, tying for the second highest number in the league. They also fumbled the ball away once.
4. Allow Fewer Than 25 Sacks:
One year after matching LSU for the most sacks allowed (37 in 2009), the Gamecocks reduced that number to 30 last season. Still, it's a high number (USC was one of just four SEC schools with 30-plus sacks), but it's certainly moving in the right direction. Having the same offensive line coach for a second straight year should help, as well. From talking with offensive line coach Shawn Elliott and the players, this preseason camp has been much smoother than last year when Elliott was still in the process of teaching his schemes and evaluating the players. Now, it's second nature for many of the players and Elliott knows what most of the starters are capable of doing on the field.
But there's another factor at work. Don't underestimate the fact the USC offensive line gets to practice every day against the extremely talented Gamecock defensive line. More than one college football analyst has rated USC's defensive line as the best in the SEC. Certainly, trying to block Devin Taylor, Melvin Ingram, Jadeveon Clowney and Travian Robertson will boost, if not accelerate, the offensive line's preparation for the weekly SEC wars.
5. Commit Fewer Than 20 Turnovers:
Another important category where USC needs to show improvement. Last year USC committed 26 turnovers, second worst in the SEC. Most of those miscues are attributable to the 17 interceptions (1.2 per game) thrown by quarterbacks. That's the highest number in the conference. So, it's no secret what USC must do to cut down the number of turnovers. If Garcia (14 INT in 349 pass attempts) and Shaw (2 INT) are able to refrain from throwing the ball into the arms of the opponents, the total number of turnovers should fall dramatically.
What about fumbles lost? Well, USC was able to cut that number from 11 in 2009 to nine in 2010 thanks in large part to Lattimore keeping a firm grasp of the football. The National Freshman of the Year fumbled just once in 249 rushing attempts. The biggest culprit was Garcia, who fumbled nine times and lost three, including two in the infamous fourth quarter at Auburn when USC turned it over four times. The bottom line? If Garcia is able to improve his accuracy, shrink the number of interceptions (his 14 INT were the highest of any QB in the SEC; Kentucky's Mike Hartline had nine INT in 405 pass attempts, 56 more than Garcia) and also hold onto the ball, USC should finish the year with a positive number in the turnover margin column after several seasons of finishing at zero or in negative numbers. Garcia accounted for 17 of USC's 26 turnovers in 2010. That figure must fall for USC to be successful.