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Jadeveon Clowney leads one of the SEC's top defensive lines.
The South Carolina Gamecocks check in at No. 10 in Athlon's college football 2012 top 25 countdown. Here's a look at our predictions for the most valuable players, games to watch, breakout candidates and other key categories for 2012.
Offensive MVP: Marcus Lattimore, RB
The Heisman candidate may be the best running back in the nation. Lattimore has run for over 2,000 yards and has scored 30 total touchdowns in just 20 career games. Of course, he must return to form after a knee injury cut his season to seven games last year. Lattimore should be healthy in the fall and right back to being an All-America-level superstar for the Gamecocks offense.
Upset Alert: Florida (Oct. 20)
The Gamecocks have handled the Gators over the last two seasons, but Will Muschamp’s bunch has a ton of talent — especially on defense. Besides this game taking place in the tough environment of The Swamp, it comes at a tough point in the schedule. USC will take on Georgia two weeks prior, and then travel to LSU on October 13. Back-to-back trips to Baton Rouge and Gainesville are just plain cruel.
Trap Game: Tennessee (Oct. 27)
Once again, here’s a tradition-laden program that the Gamecocks have handled the last two years. Derek Dooley’s squad has some serious offensive weapons in Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers, so South Carolina cannot let down after the brutal three-week stretch of taking on Georgia, LSU and Florida. If USC can make it through October, look out.
Defensive MVP: Jadeveon Clowney, DE
The uber-talented Rock Hill native came to campus as the nation’s No. 1 recruit before last season, and he did not disappoint during a solid freshman campaign. Clowney had 36 stops, including 12 tackles for loss, and an eye-opening five forced fumbles. With a year of experience and an offseason to hit the weight room, Clowney could be an All-America pass rusher in just his sophomore year of 2012.
Breakout Player: Ace Sanders, WR
With the departure of leading receiver Alshon Jeffery, Sanders is the most likely candidate to become a force on the outside. The Sunshine State speedster was the team's second-leading receiver last season with 29 catches for 383 yards and two touchdowns. Sanders was also a weapon at punt returner, averaging 9.3 yards per return and scoring once. His development will be a key to the growth of the South Carolina offense this season.
Unsung Hero: T.J. Johnson, C
The SEC had outstanding centers last season like William Vlachos of Alabama and Ben Jones of Georgia, so Johnson’s name may not be known as well as it should. The three-year starter has had to deal with many changes in offensive personnel but still has been a force inside. He will be counted on this season to lead a talented but young offensive line through a challenging group of SEC defenses.
Biggest Game: Georgia (Oct. 6)
The Gamecocks had to be thinking about a return trip to Atlanta after beating UGA, 45-42, in Athens. Of course, South Carolina ran the table in the East while the Dawgs benefited from an easier West-opponent slate. That happens again this season, with Georgia facing Auburn and Ole Miss while the Cocks travel to LSU and host Arkansas. Consequently, USC will need to take care of business at home versus Georgia.
Revenge Game: Arkansas (Nov. 10)
This one is simple. The Razorbacks have had the Gamecocks’ number over the last three seasons, winning all three games by a combined score of 118-64. Arkansas will travel to Williams-Brice Stadium this year, and South Carolina will have an extra week to prepare for the Petrino-less Hogs. Steve Spurrier’s crew should be primed to stop the current three-game skid.
Freshman to Watch: Shaq Roland, WR
The Lexington native could become the next stud receiver from the Palmetto State. Roland was rated the No. 41 overall player in the nation in the AC100, and won Mr. Football in the state of South Carolina. He will follow in the footsteps of fellow highly-rated instate products like Stephon Gilmore, Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney, and Roland should compete for early playing time.
Comeback player: Devin Taylor, DE
After a stellar sophomore season in 2010 (13 tackles for loss and 7.5 sacks), many projected Taylor as All-SEC and even All-America last year. He fell short of those expectations in 2011 but still had a solid season with 42 tackles and six sacks. He and Clowney will form a scary pass rush combination, and look for Taylor to have a very productive senior campaign.
Position Battle: Wide Receiver
The aforementioned departure of Bears second-round selection Alshon Jeffery creates a huge void at this position. Ace Sanders has shown that he can produce at the SEC level, but there are questions marks after him. The candidates to step up for the Gamecocks include senior D. L. Moore and sophomores Nick Jones and Damiere Byrd. Jeffery's brother, redshirt freshman Shamier, and true freshman Shaq Roland could also join the receiving rotation.
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