USC opponent preview: No upset, but perhaps improvement from The Citadel

The Citadel slotback Cam Jackson (right) started the spring game at quarterback and is among the Bulldogs' options at that position. (Paul Zoeller/Staff)

COLUMBIA — At The Citadel, expectations are a relative thing. The athletic limitations inherent in a military college with a small enrollment certainly make the 5-7 record achieved in head coach Mike Houston’s first season look better than it might be viewed elsewhere, especially considering the Bulldogs rebounded from a rough start to win five of their last nine games.

And Houston has an interesting team coming back, returning 16 starters from the group which beat transitioning Football Bowl Championship program Charlotte in double-overtime, lost a close game at Wofford, and finished with alumni-pleasing victories over Furman and VMI. The Bulldogs may well build on that first-year effort if they can find a quarterback to replace Aaron Miller, who finished second in the Southern Conference in rushing and seventh in passing yards per game.

Toward that end, there’s no shortage of options. Sophomore Dominique Allen served as Miller’s backup last season, but he’ll battle a host of other contenders including converted slotback Cam Jackson, who started the spring game, and redshirt freshman Shon Belton, who shined in the spring game by rushing for two touchdowns and throwing for a 92-yard score against the second-team defense.

The Bulldogs also return their entire offensive line, their top four receivers, and a number of pieces on a defense which Houston expects to be improved over last year. No, this bunch probably isn’t capable of shocking South Carolina like Jack Douglas and company infamously (from garnet and black perspectives) did in 1990 en route to the playoffs. But for The Citadel, optimism isn’t a bad place to start.

Head coach: Mike Houston (5-7 in one season at Citadel, 34-15 in five seasons overall)

Returning starters: 16 (10 offense, six defense)

2014 record: 5-7 (3-4 Southern Conference)

Scoring offense: 26.6 points scored per game

Scoring defense: 28.6 points allowed per game

Series: South Carolina leads 40-7-3

Last meeting: South Carolina 41, Citadel 20 on Nov. 19, 2011 at Williams-Brice Stadium. Connor Shaw threw for 217 yards and three touchdowns as the Gamecocks exorcised the demons from the teams’ previous meeting, The Citadel’s upset of USC in 1990. Receiver Alshon Jeffery also enjoyed a big day as the Gamecocks clinched back-to-back nine-win seasons for the first time in school history.

1. Defensive improvement is the key. The Bulldogs finished seventh in the eight-team SoCon in both scoring and total defense, and even in those late-season wins needed to put up loads of points. There are a few promising pieces, among them All-SoCo tackle Mitchell Jeter, who recorded 34 tackles a season ago. End Joe Crotchet, the team’s defensive MVP last year, and SoCon All-Freshman DB DeVonta Delaney are also back.

2. Whomever the QB is, he should have protection up front. Regardless of who ends up taking the snaps from behind center against Davidson on Sept. 5, he’ll have the benefit of a veteran offensive line. All-SoCon senior Sam Frye and sophomore Kyle Weaver lead an offensive line that returns virtually intact, and helped The Citadel lead the SoCon and rank second in FCS rushing at 347.2 yards per game.

3. This offense will still roll up yardage. Miller may be gone, as is Jake Stenson, who rushed for 597 yards last season and was invited to mini-camp with the Jacksonville Jaguars. But the Bulldogs still have potential playmakers, chief among them Jackson, whose freshman season was cut short by an injury but promises to be a factor whether he plays quarterback or slot. Also back is Vinny Miller, who finished with 466 rushing and 144 receiving yards last year as a junior.

Week before: Florida

Next week: Clemson

On the horizon: SEC Championship Game? Hey, dare to dream