Alshon Jeffery is South Carolina's top prospect for the 2012 NFL draft, but the Gamecocks receiver isn't the most valuable skill position player on the team.
Marcus Lattimore is a Heisman Trophy candidate, but South Carolina has way more talent on the defensive line than at running back.
Devin Taylor, Jadeveon Clowney and Travian Robertson will put so much pressure on opposing offenses, the Gamecocks will win most of their games with short fields alone.
Mix in the on-field leadership of No. 5s on both sides of the ball -- Stephen Garcia and Stephon Gilmore -- and South Carolina will go into the SEC championship game in Atlanta with a 12-0 record.
At Clemson, Dabo Swinney and Co. have as much young talent as any program in the country, but on paper the Tigers do not cut it after a 6-7 season ending with ugly performances against South Carolina and South Florida.
Clemson doesn't have to beat national championship contenders Florida State and Virginia Tech on back-to-back Saturdays. But the Tigers must steadily improve in the key four-game stretch that follows.
A quick spin around the state:
Sure wins: East Carolina (Sept. 3), Navy (Sept. 17), Vanderbilt (Sept. 24), The Citadel (Nov. 19).
Sure losses: None.
Probable wins: Auburn (Oct. 1), Kentucky (Oct. 8), at Tennessee (Oct. 29), Florida (Nov. 12), Clemson (Nov. 26).
Probable losses: None.
Helmet scratchers: at Georgia (Sept. 10), at Mississippi State (Oct. 15), at Arkansas (Nov. 5).
Barometer game: Between The Hedges.
Record: 12-0 going into an SEC championship game against the winner of the LSU-Alabama game.
Sure wins: Troy (Sept. 3), Wofford (Sept. 10), Wake Forest (Nov. 12).
Sure losses: None.
Probable wins: Auburn (Sept. 17), Boston College (Oct. 8), at Georgia Tech (Oct. 29).
Probable losses: Florida State (Sept. 24), at Virginia Tech (Oct. 1), at South Carolina (Nov. 26).
Helmet scratchers: at Maryland (Oct. 15), North Carolina (Oct. 22), at N.C. State (Nov. 19).
Barometer game: Auburn.
Record: 7-5 and a bowl trip to Nashville. Or El Paso.
Reason to believe: The Citadel, even with an inept offense, managed last year to finish third in the Southern Conference in total defense. Give head coach Kevin Higgins a chance and just a little more production and maybe the Bulldogs make more than gradual progress.
The problem is a schedule that's great for the marketing department but harsh for coaches.
A sunny disposition for a team that opens with three games in the Sunshine State: Central Florida, Florida State and Jacksonville. Head coach Jay Mills has 39 true or redshirt freshmen and 18 sophomores. But traveling should be easy on a Bucs squad laden with native Floridians, including All-Big South preseason selections Charles James (junior cornerback) and Levi McFatter (senior tackle).
Three straight first-place finishes and you know coach Buddy Pough has depth when the Bulldogs lose 11 starters but still get picked to win the MEAC title in the league's official preseason poll. S.C. State must replace three-year starter Malcolm Long at quarterback but will rely heavily on an offensive line led by 6-3, 310-pound senior guard Juavahr Nathan (Stratford High School).
Record: 8-3 and FCS playoffs.
Eric Breitenstein ran for 22 touchdowns and led the Southern Conference in rushing last season. He is a marked man as a junior but coach Mike Ayers' wingbone attack should get plenty of opportunities with eight starters returning to the Terriers' underrated defense.
Record: 8-3 and FCS playoffs.
The Bruce Fowler Era begins with optimism and a technically sound approach. A longtime defensive coordinator under coach Bobby Johnson at Vanderbilt, Fowler spent 16 years at Furman and knows his way around the Southern Conference.
He also knows the Paladins better get off to a good start with road games at Coastal Carolina and The Citadel.
The Chanticleers won their last four regular season games last season to squeeze into the 2010 FCS playoffs, and head coach David Bennett has postseason dates on Coastal's official schedule this year.
The key is Aramis Hillary and progress in his first year as a starting quarterback.
What do the Blue Hose have in coming with bearded San Francisco Giants closer Brian Wilson? Both enjoy looking forward to epic battles at AT&T Park in San Francisco. Cal is playing its games at the ballyard this season while its home stadium in Berkeley undergoes a renovation and the Golden Bears play host to Presbyterian on Sept. 17.
The Big South-member Blue Hose are in a final year of transitioning to Division I.
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