COLUMBIA — Timing is everything during the course of a college football season. It’s no different for South Carolina.
One week ago, there was misery, a shocking upset loss at Tennessee that could have sent the season spiraling downward. Then, there was Missouri, a shocking upset win that could have saved the season.
From despair to jubilation, from defeat to justification, this has been a roller-coaster fall for the Gamecocks. When evaluating where things stand after eight games, the key is surveying the entire body of work. Take the good, take the bad, and come up with one calculation. Using an A grade for perfection and F for utter imperfection, here’s a breakdown of the Gamecocks’ grades before the regular season enters its final month.
The Gamecocks are still effective throwing the football, they just do it differently. There is no lead receiver, though Bruce Ellington has begun to change that. Seven receivers have caught at least 100 yards. Four have at least 21 catches, but Ellington’s 31 leads the pack. Connor Shaw has a lot of different options on the field, and he uses them all. Most importantly, Shaw doesn’t make mistakes. Shaw has 14 touchdowns and one interception this season, the only SEC quarterback with double-digit touchdowns and only one pick.
Mike Davis has been a revelation through the first two months, leading the SEC
with 930 rushing yards. When Davis replaced Marcus Lattimore, there was no avoiding the comparisons. Shockingly, those comparisons slant heavily in Davis’ favor. Lattimore’s best season was his first, when he rushed for 1,197 yards and 17 touchdowns as a freshman. Lattimore ended that season with 1,609 yards from scrimmage and 19 overall touchdowns. Davis is on track to rush for 1,511 yards and 16 touchdowns. From scrimmage, the sophomore is on track for 1,998 yards. The only potential weakness in Davis’ game is his three fumbles this season, two of which came at Missouri.
USC’s talented and veteran offensive line has plowed the way for Davis’ breakout performance. A rash of sprained ankles have prevented the Gamecocks from consistently having the starting unit they started the season with, though center Clayton Stadnik has performed well replacing oft-injured Cody Waldrop. So, why no A? The Gamecocks have struggled to protect Shaw, allowing 16 sacks. That’s the ninth-most in the SEC, and a testament to how well Shaw has played this fall.
Jadeveon Clowney has been a disappointment, except for a few flashes of brilliance. At the start of the season, critics wondered if Clowney would reach 20 sacks this season. Instead, through two months, Clowney only has two sacks. Clowney is well behind last season’s production, but defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles has picked up some of the slack. Quarles is second in the SEC with seven sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Still, it hasn’t been enough to totally make up for Clowney’s decreased numbers. South Carolina is sixth in the SEC with 17 sacks. In two of the past three seasons, the Gamecocks led the SEC in that category.
Skai Moore has been productive for a true freshman in the SEC, with 32 tackles and 2.5 for loss. Between Moore, team-leading tackler Marcquis Roberts, Kaiwan Lewis and T.J. Holloman, the Gamecocks have developed some depth at the middle of their 4-2-5 set. It’s a young group, but the future could be bright at linebacker.
In September, USC’s secondary was a train wreck. There were big plays given up at Georgia and Central Florida, breakdowns that had Lorenzo Ward and Grady Brown scratching their heads. The two coaches figured something out. The turnaround began at Arkansas, and the improvement hasn’t stopped. Jimmy Legree and Victor Hampton have been exactly what you expect out of veteran cornerbacks. Brison Williams has been solid at strong safety, while freshman Chaz Elder is starting to establish himself at free safety. The pass defense ranks fourth in the SEC with 205.5 yards allowed per game.
Elliott Fry has been the biggest positive for the Gamecocks’ special teams, making 8 of 10 field goals this season, including the game-winning 40-yard kick in double overtime Saturday at Missouri. Freshman Pharoh Cooper has also shown some promise as a return man. That’s where the positives end. USC’s special teams have been atrocious — both in kicking, punting and returning.
Here is where timing means everything. Give this grade a week ago, maybe it’s an F. This week, maybe it’s an A. So, why doesn’t it even out to a C? USC is 6-2 despite a brutal schedule. The Gamecocks have played five of their eight games on the road. In the past five weeks, they’ve visited Orlando, Fayetteville, Knoxville and Missouri. That’s 4,500 miles roundtrip. Yet, here they are, with a chance to win the SEC East. Credit Spurrier and his staff for keeping this team on track after the brutal loss at Tennessee. Let’s see what they can do in November.