How South Carolina Won the East
I am here to make the case for South Carolina winning the East. I know-it sounds preposterous. But between their schedule and the Gamecocks’ roster, South Carolina can make a legitimate push in the East. First, the defense is infinitely better. One of the main reasons is pass defense, which should be ranked in the top 25. The pass rush will be much improved, with Marquavius Lewis (#1 JUCO DE in 2014), Darius English (long at 6’5”) and Dante Sawyer (4 star DE, according to 247sports). Also, look for incoming freshman DE Shameik Blackshear. The linebacking corps is one of the most athletic and active in the conference, headlined by Skai Moore (3 int), and the secondary should improve behind what will be likely an All-SEC campaign by TJ Gurley. The rush defense, while probably not finishing in the Top 25, should be much improved, with almost the entire front seven intact and the interior defensive linemen all weighing over 320 pounds. Also, new Defensive Coordinator Jon Hoke changed the defense back to a base scheme, allowing for players to worry more about their assignment than positioning. Finally, with Jordan Diggs moving to safety, this team will have 193 solo tackles between the starting linebackers and safeties. That is great support for the defensive line.
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks’ offense will shock people with how truly talented it is. The offensive line looks to be just fine with three returning starters along with the return of a now-healthy Mike Matulis. The running game could be even better than last year with the perennially overlooked and underrated Brandon Wilds, the speedy David Williams, and the playmaking ability of Pharoh Cooper in the Wildcat. Also look for Lorenzo Nunez to get some formations/packages designed for him to utilize his athleticism. Wide receiver play should be fine, with Cooper returning, Deebo Samuel establishing himself as a consistent slot, over the middle type guy, and the emergence of Jerrell Adams at tight end. Quarterback play is the only question, but the conference is full of quarterback battles.
This team is good enough to contend in the East. Here’s how:
- Give the Gamecocks nearly two automatic SEC wins with both Kentucky and Vanderbilt coming to Williams-Brice Stadium. Trust me, Kentucky will not upset South Carolina two years in a row. The last time the Wildcats beat the Gamecocks two seasons in a row was 1998-1999.
- Of the remaining home SEC games (Florida and LSU) I predict both will be victories for the Gamecocks, mainly because both those programs are not going to have the quarterback play needed to win on the road in the SEC.
- The game at Missouri is also going to be a win, because the weak Tiger passing game is not going to allow Missouri to have a balanced offense (or even a good one), while Missouri’s defense will have issues with Gamecock OT Brandon Shell establishing the perimeter rush offense for the position players mentioned earlier.
- Among the three other away SEC games (at Georgia, at Texas A&M, and at Tennessee) Steve Spurrier can steal one of those (at least). Maybe it will come against what appears to be a weak A&M defense, or against a rattled young quarterback early in the season at Georgia, but Spurrier has a knack for winning the one game he truly needs, and that game will come in one of those three contests.
Put it all together, and South Carolina should win at least six SEC conference games. Is that enough to win the East? Georgia quite possibly loses three conference games (vs. Alabama, at Auburn, at Tennessee) just because good teams often lose to other good teams. Missouri will lose to at least South Carolina, Georgia, and Arkansas. Florida will lose to at least South Carolina, Ole Miss, and Georgia. And it will be tough for Tennessee to escape conference play without three losses. They will almost certainly lose at Alabama. They have not won in the Swamp since 2003 (in a series in which they have lost 19 of 25) Plus the Vols play in November at Missouri, a program that thrives on late season home games, especially when the division may be on the line.
It is far from certain that the Gamecocks will win the East, but that possibility is much stronger than most analysts project.