COLUMBIA ó In the history of South Carolina football, which dates back to 1892, the Gamecocks have won 11 games in a season just once, last season.
They have won 10 games once, nine games twice (including 2010) and eight games just seven times. Yet many USC fans would consider 2012 a disappointing season if the Gamecocks went 8-5 or 9-4 and didnít play in the Southeastern Conference championship game. Coming off last seasonís success, many crave another double-digit win season and a trip to Atlanta for the championship game, which USC reached for the first and only time in 2010.
Itís remarkable to see how expectations have increased among USCís fans, considering that between the Gamecocksí 8-4 season in 1988 and 9-5 in 2010, they had just three eight-win seasons ó 2000, 2001 and 2006. Now, plenty would consider eight wins a flop of sorts.
As the Gamecocks try to extend their best two-year stretch ever into a three-year run, they will hold their first preseason practice at 7:30 tonight in preparation for the Aug. 30 season opener at Vanderbilt.
Here are five questions they will try to answer between now and then:
1. Who is the most reliable outside receiver?
This is probably the biggest question surrounding the Gamecocks in August. They bring back their No. 2 receiver, Ace Sanders, who had 29 catches for 383 yards and two touchdowns. But he is 5-8 and a slot receiver. Ditto for Bruce Ellington, who is 5-9 and has proved to be a versatile asset at times.
USCís top big-bodied outside receivers entering the preseason are 6-1 junior DeAngelo Smith, who had a strong spring, and 6-5 senior D.L. Moore. Smith has four career catches, Moore 32, but just eight last season. So there are opportunities at these spots for guys like Shamier Jeffery, Damiere Byrd, Nick Jones and K.J. Brent, as well as the three highly regarded freshman receivers ó Shaq Roland, Kwinton Smith and Jody Fuller.
2. Where will Shell play?
He will play, that much is all but certain. Offensive line coach Shawn Elliott is intent on getting the redshirt freshman from Goose Creek some action. He is currently listed as the No. 1 left tackle, with Mike Matulis as the No. 1 right tackle, just ahead of Cody Gibson.
Shell got more action in the spring because Matulis was out after shoulder surgery. Both Matulis and Gibson started last season. Elliott likes Shellís potential, but needs to determine if he is better suited to play left tackle or right tackle.
3. Can the secondary deliver?
New defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward liked the progress that sophomore Brison Williams made in the spring after a spotty true freshman season in 2011. Can he keep up the positive developments?
USC is relying on him to start at strong safety, while the strong safety from the past two seasons, DeVonte Holloman, moves up to spur outside linebacker to replace Antonio Allen, last seasonís leading tackler. Williamsí progress is critical in making this arrangement thrive.
4. Whoís the kicker?
This wonít be a major question if USC goes for it on fourth down as it often did last season. The Gamecocks attempted 11 field goals in 2011 and went for it on fourth down 31 times. The Gamecocksí 74 percent conversion rate ranked eighth.
Senior Adam Yates enters the preseason ahead of redshirt freshman Landon Ard in the kicking competition, but true freshman Nick St. Germain is also in the mix.
5. Can the defensive ends be as dominant?
Thatís a tall order. In 2011, Melvin Ingram, Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney combined for 24 sacks and 35Ĺ tackles for loss.
Clowney and Taylor are the starters now. The backups are Chaz Sutton and Aldrick Fordham, a converted tackle. Neither is the type of elite No. 3 end that Clowney was last season. But if either is good enough to disrupt at times, USC could move Clowney inside to match up with an offensive guard ó an alignment that worked well for Ingram last season.