Our 2015 opponent previews continue. Today: Sandstorm.
Steve Spurrier, age 70, is entering his 11th season as the head coach at South Carolina. If he stays one more year after this fall, he'll have been in Columbia just as long as he was in Gainesville, which seemed like a ridiculous idea when he took the Carolina job in 2005.
Spurrier left Gainesville for the NFL partly because 10 wins weren't enough anymore at Florida; the Ballcoach won just one SEC title in his last five years with the Gators after taking four straight from 1993-96. Spurrier won the SEC East and then 11 games three years in a row at South Carolina in 2011-13. The difference between coaching at Florida and at South Carolina is, when you follow it up with just one 7-6 like the Gamecocks did last year, almost everyone writes you off. No one is picking South Carolina because they're South Carolina.
An optimist would look at it this way: in the first year of a new defensive system, the Gamecocks blew a 13 point lead with seven minutes to play against Missouri, a 14 point lead with eight minutes to play against Kentucky (including a pick six), and a 14 point lead with five minutes to play against Tennessee, which then scored consecutive sacks in overtime to secure the victory. If those go the other way you've got a 9-3 team in a three-way tie for the SEC East title with Georgia and Missouri, and that's before you even consider another near miss against Auburn. South Carolina was bad defensively, there's no hiding it: 104th nationally in yards per play allowed, the only defense in the SEC to give up more than six yards per play. But they were also good enough offensively (36th nationally in yards per play) to build leads they shouldn't have lost.
A pessimist would look at their 2015 schedule and tip his or her cap to Spurrier for the non-conference effort: Clemson, Central Florida, and a Thursday night opener in Charlotte against the Tar Heels. There's no such thing as a kind SEC West draw this year; Carolina gets Texas A&M on the road and LSU in Columbia. But their SEC East home-away rotation seems unfair, at least this year: Georgia, Missouri, and Tennessee, the three most likely to vie for Atlanta, are all road tests for the Gamecocks.
Where does South Carolina fall among those likely to vie for Atlanta? Much of that will depend on their quarterback play. Dylan Thompson graduated, leaving dual-first-name-threat Connor Mitch and his six career attempts as the front-runner with actual dual-threat freshman Lorenzo Nunez expected to get in the mix when he arrives in camp. There are still plenty of weapons left from last year's offense, including Pharoh Cooper and
both Mike Davis (turned pro early) and Brandon Wilds in the backfield, co-starters on the infinite eligibility team.
The defense isn't likely to be baptized by fire Texas A&M-style, but how much better will they be? Six of the top seven tacklers return, and Jon Hoke, who was Spurrier's defensive coordinator in Gainesville after Bob Stoops left for Oklahoma, returns to the college game after 13 years in the NFL to serve as co-defensive coordinator with Lorenzo Ward. How quickly the defense adjusts to newness there and how fast a quarterback can develop will be key in South Carolina's overall success this season.
Butch Jones is 2-0 against Steve Spurrier, and with the game back in Knoxville this fall many in our camp are putting Carolina back in the "that's a win" category. That has more to do with Tennessee than South Carolina. In the last five years the Gamecocks have signed classes ranking between 16th-20th in the 247 Composite. During their rise Carolina was most famous for the individual exploits of Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney, but their overall talent level is, on paper, about the same as it's always been under Spurrier's watch. With another year of experience defensively and some of that talent manifesting itself at quarterback, I think Carolina can be right in the mix for the SEC East title again this year, same as they have been for the last five years save a few minutes in the fourth quarter last season. Don't give up on Spurrier just yet. There's no head coach we enjoy beating more; I hope he stays around for Butch to run his winning streak to far more than just three.