COLUMBIA -- South Carolina is the preseason pick to win the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division, but the football team is well aware that victories don't come easily in the SEC.
How the team develops this month will determine whether the Gamecocks are playing in Atlanta, site of the SEC championship game, in December.
Here are five storylines to watch between today's first practice and the Sept. 3 opener in Charlotte against East Carolina.
1. Byrd, Bruce and the return game
USC coach Steve Spurrier has already boldly proclaimed that his special teams will score a touchdown this fall. A lot of eyes are on the team's new return men now that Bryce Sherman and Chris Culliver are no longer part of the program.
Damiere Byrd and Bruce Ellington are considered far faster options than the Gamecocks previously had. Although no one will know if they can have an impact until the season actually begins, the August scrimmages could provide hints. Ellington, the basketball team's leading scorer as a freshman, began working out with the team in June.
Reports have been positive about the Berkeley High product, as well as Byrd, a freshman from New Jersey.
New special teams coordinator John Butler arrived in the winter. This will be an important month for him as well.
2. On guard for guards
Spurrier said this week the offense's major question is the line, which it has been each offseason since he arrived at USC. Unlike past years, the rest of the offense is highlighted by known quantities. The line, though, is still veiled in some mystery.
Kyle Nunn, Rok Watkins and T.J. Johnson are known commodities, respectively accounting for both tackles and the center positions. But what about the guards? Is A.J. Cann ready to grow up and be a week-in, week-out producer? And what about junior college product Kaleb Broome? Can he physically do enough by the opener to ouster veteran T.C. Campbell?
The line seemed to be on the right track a year ago under then-first-year coach Shawn Elliott. Elliott is back, the first time an offensive line coach has been at USC for consecutive years since 2007-08.
3. Garcia growing up?
People talk about quarterback Stephen Garcia like he's a ticking time bomb, presuming it will only be a matter of time until he implodes one final time.
August is important for Garcia, a 23-year-old fifth-year senior, to show that he's ready to handle being a leader for the Gamecocks. There's no question he was on his last strike a few strikes ago, so will he act and play like a guy who knows he's been generously granted more time by Spurrier and the school? He has the potential, but seeing is believing when it comes to Garcia.
4. Seeking safeties
Defensive head coach Ellis Johnson is concerned about the emergence of someone at free safety. Rightfully so, because that position is directly linked to two others -- strong safety and spur linebacker.
In Johnson's ideal world, either Jimmy Legree or Brison Williams steps forward at the free safety spot during camp. That would allow D.J Swearinger to play strong safety and DeVonte Holloman to remain at the spur, where he moved in the spring.
If Legree or Williams are so-so, Swearinger could have to play free safety and Holloman will move to strong safety, theoretically weakening the whole scheme.
5. Handling hype
Spurrier said last week he hopes the team has it between the ears to handle the heightened expectations after last year's first-ever SEC division win. Will there be enough leadership from guys such as Travian Robertson and Marcus Lattimore to get the Gamecocks to work during the next month, closing the gap from where they are to where they want to go?
Only time will tell how the team handles whatever pressure exists and whether August is a good month for it.
Notice about comments:
The Post and Courier is pleased to offer readers the enhanced ability to comment on stories. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point.