South Carolina's 2011 season gets underway in a few days with Gamecock Nation believing USC is capable of winning the SEC title for the first time since joining the conference in 1992. However, 10 things must happen for USC to attain that goal.
1. Stephen Garcia Must Establish Himself As The Clear No. 1 Quarterback: All this talk about Garcia and sophomore Connor Shaw rotating snaps is nice and all, but we heard the same thing last year too heading into the season-opener. Shaw played a fair amount against Southern Miss before Garcia took over starting with the following week's win over Georgia. Expect Shaw to get a reasonable number of snaps in the first half of the year when the Gamecocks face East Carolina, Navy (sorry, it's not 1984 anymore), Vanderbilt and Kentucky. However, the second half of the season is a bit trickier with three straight SEC road games and home contests against Florida and Clemson.
The Gamecocks will require a fifth-year senior's guidance to maneuver cleanly through that obstacle course. In order to become the national championship contender some believe they can be (see Sunday's New York Post), Garcia must play often and he must play well. I've written and said previously that I believe Garcia will have an outstanding senior season. Nothing has happened during preseason camp to alter that opinion.
2. The First-Team Offensive Line Must Stay Healthy: Charles Dickens would be proud because the USC offensive line is truly a tale of two cities. The starting five is experienced, tough-minded and ready to battle even the most talented of the SEC's defensive lines. But the second line consists largely of untested freshmen and sophomores. Even Steve Spurrier has taken a few jabs at the reserves, maintaining the Gamecocks would be in trouble if some of the second-teamers had to play because of injuries. In a way, USC's fortunes lay in the hands of Kyle Nunn, A.J. Cann, T.J. Johnson, Terrence Campbell and Rokevious Watkins. We could see Kaleb Broome and Cody Gibson as well, but even that duo has struggled keeping up. Beyond that, the rest of them need more seasoning before they're ready to play.
3. Steve Spurrier Jr. Must Find A Way To Keep Nine Wide Receivers Happy: Is there such a thing as having too many quality wide receivers? We could find out this season. Spurrier Jr. has commented on multiple occasions that it's difficult to prepare more than six receivers for a game. Problem is, the Gamecocks have nine receivers (we'll assume K.J. Brent and Shamier Jeffery will redshirt) capable of stepping onto the field and producing at a high level. Doing the math, that means three could end up very unhappy. Solution? Rotate them from week to week with Alshon Jeffery, of course, cemented as the No. 1 receiver. The remaining eight receivers will battle for five spots. The problem is there is only one ball and running back Marcus Lattimore will get significant carries as well. We'll see if displeasure with that system creeps in as the season progresses.
4. USC Must Win Six Or More Games At Home: The Gamecocks are 12-2 at home in the last two years, an impressive mark for a program that struggled to win at Williams-Brice Stadium in Spurrier's early years as coach. This year, USC has the weapons and the schedule to win seven home games for the first time since 1987. Unlike past years, no 2011 home opponent will arrive in Columbia with a perceived talent advantage. Auburn lost a bunch of players from its national championship team, while Florida and Clemson have too many holes. 7-0 at home in 2011? Could happen.
Winning at home is essential if the Gamecocks want to have a successful season because the road games are tough. The three-game stretch in late October and early November that requires USC to travel to Mississippi State, Tennessee and Arkansas will test the Gamecocks, and represents the highest hurdle to repeating as SEC East champs. If they survive that three-game jaunt with at least two wins, the SEC East title should be within reach (as long as they beat Georgia in Week 2) when they face Florida on Nov. 12.
5. USC Must Beat Georgia and Clemson: Taking the schedule in chronological order, here are the four main goals for the Gamecocks in 2011: 1) Win the SEC East; 2) Win the state championship; 3) Win the SEC championship and 4) Win the national championship. The final two goals probably won't be attainable unless they achieve the first two. That's where the Bulldogs and Tigers come in. The Sept. 10 clash in Athens will have major ramifications in terms of who wins the East. In my opinion, the winner of that game will find themselves in Atlanta in early December playing for the conference championship, especially if Georgia wins, because the remainder of its schedule is hardly taxing with no LSU, Alabama or Arkansas.
The Clemson game, of course, is a season by itself. How empty of a feeling would it be if USC polishes off the SEC East title against the Gators, but then loses to the Tigers at home two weeks later? If everything plays out according to expectations, USC could have a lot on the line Nov. 26.
6. Marcus Lattimore Must Average 110 Yards Rushing Per Game: You don't win consistently in the SEC without running the football. Last season, just one of the top six rushing teams finished with a losing record. USC improved last season in that area, but it still finished eighth in the conference in rushing offense (154.4 ypg) as Lattimore averaged 92.1 yards per game. If the sophomore is able to take it to the next level, as many predict he will, the Gamecocks will be in good shape, especially on the road when ball control and discipline are keys towards winning.
7. Jimmy Legree Must Play Well At Free Safety: The inconsistent play by the Gamecocks' secondary in 2010 has been heavily discussed and dissected over the last eight months. Rather than sit still, Ellis Johnson made changes, moving DeVonte Holloman to spur and shifting D.J. Swearinger to strong safety, his more natural position and a better fit for his skills. However, that left a huge void at free safety. Johnson hopes Legree will be able to fill the void. If not, the secondary could struggle again because the lack of depth at both safety spots is alarming. The cornerback position appears set with Stephon Gilmore, Akeem Auguste and C.C. Whitlock. Victor Hampton could be a good one once he returns from his three-game suspension.
8. Jay Wooten Must Come Close To The Year Spencer Lanning Had In 2010: Legree faces plenty of pressure at free safety, but Wooten might have the most weight on his shoulders because a missed extra point or field goal can be the difference between victory and defeat in the SEC. We've seen that scenario play out over and over again in Athens (2005, 2009) when missed extra points cost the Gamecocks dearly. Lanning was very dependable (34-of-44 in two years) kicking field goals, especially late in the season at Florida and Clemson. Can Wooten match those numbers? He must.
9. USC Must Win The SEC East For The Second Consecutive Year: The New York Post predicts the Gamecocks will win the national title largely because of the talent on hand at the offensive skill positions. Considering the huge expectations for USC heading into the season, anything less than another SEC East title will be seen as a major letdown. As we've mentioned, the Week 2 game at Georgia is huge, huge, huge and a win there is mandatory to capture the division crown unless some upsets occur later on in the season. Spurrier's main goal every year is to reach Atlanta and compete for the conference title. Last year, they were overwhelmed by a deeper and more talented Auburn team. This year, nobody in the West Division appears as invincible.
10. USC Must Cut Down The Number Of Turnovers and Finish With A Positive Number In Turnover Margin: Besides rushing average, another key economic indicator for success in the SEC is turnover margin. If you want to win in this conference, finishing with a negative number in that category is almost always fatal to your hopes. Last season, USC finished even with 26 takeaways and 26 giveaways. That latter number was second-highest in the SEC. Too many. The Gamecocks must see that number fall into the teens to attain the SEC championship. Alabama had 14 turnovers in 2010, while Auburn had 17. Even Vanderbilt (19) committed seven fewer turnovers than the Gamecocks en route to a miserable 2-10 season. Spurrier hopes the experience a fifth-year senior quarterback brings to the table will promote a reduction in the number of turnovers. It must. Twenty-six turnovers won't get it done.