This is the sixth edition of a seven-part series in which Chris Lee previews the Southeastern Conference. Today, we examine South Carolina and Tennessee.
Are Gamecocks on the decline?
At this time last year, most everyone had either South Carolina or Georgia to win the SEC East. It wasn’t hard to understand why in either case; as far as the Gamecocks were concerned, they’d come off three consecutive 11-2 seasons, returned eight starters on offense and six on defense, and returned 58 lettermen, one of the highest totals in America. (All those numbers are courtesy of Phil Steele’s College Football Preview.)
At first blush, there was no reason to believe that a 7-6 campaign was on the horizon, one that included a 3-5 SEC mark. But there were some concerns. Quarterback Connor Shaw, the heart and soul of the team was gone. But maybe more importantly, the Gamecocks lacked some of the elite players, especially on defense—Jadeveon Clowney, Melvin Ingram and Stephen Gilmore come to mind—and while there was some assumption that coach Steve Spurrier’s recruiting could keep Carolina at an elite level, it didn’t happen.
Can Spurrier get the magic back?
His best hope probably starts on offense. Receiver Pharoh Cooper is a future NFL first-rounder and one of the conference’s better play-makers. Tailback Brandon Wilds, if he can stay healthy, has flashed the ability to be a legitimate SEC running back. Senior tackles Mike Matulis and Brandon Shell anchor a decent offensive line. If former four-star recruit Connor Mitch is the answer at quarterback, the Gamecocks could be good on offense again.
The defense was dreadful a year ago and Jon Hoke, last with the Bears, was hired to co-coordinate with Lorenzo Ward and fix it. Undersized linebacker Skai Moore is the only thing resembling a star on that side of the ball, and the front seven had just 14 sacks after generating 43 two years ago. Eight starters are juniors and seniors and so the combination of experience and a new 4-3 look are the best hopes for improvement.
Las Vegas has set the over-under on regular-season wins at seven. Other than the contest with The Citadel, there are no free passes on the schedule and that makes it tough, but the again, the Gamecocks are coached by one of the greatest minds in college football history and that gives them a chance.
Are the Vols “back?”
To answer that question: not yet. But in two years under coach Butch Jones, they’ve inched closer. The 7-6 campaign was UT’s first winning season since 2009 and between that and some highly-ranked recruiting classes, it’s been cause for many to pick the Vols second behind Georgia in the East.
One big reason for that was Josh Dobbs; the Vols entered midseason thinking they had no quarterback until the sophomore emerged from the bench and turned what was an Alabama blowout into a respectable loss in Game 8. Dobbs has a combination of brains, an accurate arm and capable feet, though UT may not want Dobbs running so much this year as an injury could be fatal to the season given that the line, though vastly more experienced that the one with six total returning starts in ’14, isn’t super-gifted. There’s also the fact that UT has one of America’s best 1-2 punches at tailback in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, and three talented receivers in Josh Malone, Pig Howard and Marquez North.
On the whole, the Vols are a lot more talented here than they have been the last two years. If receiver Von Pearson is cleared of rape charges, that’ll add another dimension of explosiveness.
Defensively, this could be UT’s best unit since 2008. Nashville native Derek Barnett was a holy terror as a freshman defensive end, and opposite him, Curt Maggitt is a preseason first-team All-SEC pick. Clarksville’s Jalen Reeves-Maybin is a developing star at linebacker as is Cameron Sutton at cornerback. The Vols have a pair of senior safeties in Brian Randolph and LaDarrell McNeil and perhaps some help in JUCO transfer Justin Martin at corner.
Jones had an uphill battle to make a bowl a year ago due to a brutal schedule. The Vols not only made one, but soundly beat Iowa once there. This year’s slate is a bit easier, and with 18 returning starters—that’s the fourth-highest total in America—UT will be a bit more prepared to handle it. An eight-win regular-season and a second-place finish in the East are certainly attainable, with perhaps better things on the horizon for 2016.