South Carolina did harvest a fine crop of freshman for the upcoming season, and the Gamecocks are once again expected to be in the thick of the Southeastern Conference race. Spurrier's squad might be a bit of a long shot at 50/1 to win the National Championship on the college football futures odds, but that puts them behind Alabama (13/2), LSU (20/1), Auburn (25/1), Georgia (30/1) and Ole Miss (30/1) for sixth in the SEC, and considering the top 3 are all in the West, USC has a good shot of reaching the league final from the East.
The Gamecocks are coming off a splendid 11-2 campaign (7-6 against the spread), missing the SEC Championship thanks to their only two losses coming on the road, one an understandable early setback in Athens to the Georgia Bulldogs, the other an inexplicable loss in Knoxville to the Tennessee Volunteers. They won the last six on the schedule, including an overtime win at then-No. 5 Missouri and victories vs. top 20 outfits Clemson and Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl to close the books.
Spurrier had one of the youngest teams in the conference a year ago, so you'd think South Carolina would be the favorite in the SEC East. But that is no longer the case with seven early entries into the NFL Draft, plus a tough early schedule I'll get to in a bit.
Clowney, Shaw First Two Holes To Fill
The departure of a few key upperclassmen as well as several early entries into the NFL Draft left some big shoes to fill, and that begins under center where Connor Shaw, whom Spurrier called "the best quarterback to ever play (at South Carolina)," departs for next level.
Shaw was 26-5 as the starting QB, and Dylan Thompson is being penciled in as his replacement. Several youngsters will try and beat Thompson out for the job, including Connor Mitch who redshirted as a freshman in 2013, and Brendan Nosovitch from the Class of 2012.
Two more losses on offense were right guard Ronald Patrick and leading wide receiver Bruce Ellington. Patrick was the only senior on the O-Line last season, while Ellington ended his USC career with over 100 catches for nearly 1,600 yards and 16 scores.
Defense is where the Gamecocks took a big hit, especially on the line. Jadaveon Clowney is the big name heading to the NFL early, but the absence of end Chaz Sutton and tackle Kelcy Quarles might be felt even more by South Carolina. There are also openings in the defensive backfield where corners Jimmy Legree and Victor Hampton used to play.
Newcomers Could Get Early Playing Time
Among the new recruits who could step right into ample playing time, if not a starter's role, is defensive tackle Abu Lamin. The 300+ pounder toiled for Fort Scott Community College in Kansas last year, and is joined by another juco transfer in end Jhaustin Thomas. Two more key defensive line additions are end Dante Sawyer and tackle Dexter Wideman, the latter of which switched allegiances on signing day and chose South Carolina over Florida State.
Al Harris and Darin Smalls were brought in to learn the DB trade, and keep eyes and ears open for how quickly linebacker Joe Blue progresses up the depth chart.
Wide receivers Shaq Davidson and Terry Googer have a shot to see aerials thrown their way in 2014. At some point in the near future, those passes may be delivered by Michael Sarnecchia, the only QB on USC's list this class.
Five SEC Foes Among First 6 Games
If there's an SEC East team with a tougher schedule than the 'Cocks, especially early on, I haven't found it. South Carolina does have four of its first six games at home, but those opponents are primarily from the Southeastern Conference, starting with a visit from the Texas Aggies in what figures to be the first prime-time ESPN Thursday Night game (Aug. 28).
South Carolina will then host East Carolina before taking on Georgia, going on the road to meet Vanderbilt, coming back home against Missouri and then a trip to Kentucky before its first bye week.
October's key game is at Auburn Oct. 25, and there are away games at Florida and Clemson in November. No Alabama on the regular season slate anywhere, so that's a plus, but there are those early division games against Georgia and Missouri. An 8-1 or even 7-2 start to the season should put the Gamecocks into the discussion for an SEC title, or beyond.