By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)
South Carolina’s SEC title hopes suffered a significant setback, as running back Marcus Lattimore suffered a season-ending knee injury in Saturday’s game against Mississippi State. The Gamecocks managed to hold on for a 14-12 win, but it came at a major price.
Following Saturday’s action, Georgia and South Carolina were the only teams with one defeat in the SEC East. Thanks to a loss to Auburn, Florida slipped to 2-3 and needs a lot of help to win the division.
The Gamecocks defeated Georgia earlier this season, but with Lattimore’s injury, can they hold onto the SEC East title? Don’t bet on it.
South Carolina is off this Saturday, but faces a tough two-game road stretch at Tennessee and Arkansas. The Gamecocks should be able to beat the Volunteers, but winning against the Razorbacks – one of the best offenses in the SEC – is an uphill battle. Also, South Carolina still has to face Florida in its final conference game and hosts rival Clemson on Nov. 26. Only a date with Citadel on Nov. 19 is a sure bet on the schedule.
While it’s possible the Gamecocks could rally around quarterback Connor Shaw, Lattimore was one of the best players in college football and won’t easily be replaced. For a team that has dealt with bouts of inconsistency on offense all year, losing your best player isn’t an ideal situation.
With all of the uncertainty surrounding South Carolina’s quarterbacks this year, there was no doubt Lattimore was going to carry the offense. Through seven games, the sophomore led the team with 818 rushing yards and 10 scores. Lattimore ranked 13th nationally with 116.9 rushing yards per game, which was second in the SEC behind Alabama’s Trent Richardson.
Lattimore’s emergence last season carried South Carolina to a SEC East title. In his freshman year, Lattimore collected 1,197 yards and 17 scores, while catching 29 passes for 412 yards and two touchdowns.
South Carolina expected Lattimore to easily build on last season’s statistics, and the sophomore garnered a ton of preseason hype, including a spot on Athlon’s first-team All-American team.
Although Lattimore is out for the rest of the season, the good news is that he is expected to return in 2012 at full strength. Lattimore will be a junior next season, and considering he is likely a first-round pick, 2012 should be his last in Columbia.
Where South Carolina goes from here at running back remains to be seen.
With Lattimore’s injury and the dismissal of quarterback Stephen Garcia, the Gamecocks have lost their top two leading rushers this year. Starting quarterback Connor Shaw is third on the team with 110 yards and no scores.
It’s very likely a committee approach will be used at running back. True freshman Brandon Wilds was listed as the top backup to Lattimore for Saturday’s game against Mississippi State. Wilds has rushed for 75 yards on 13 attempts this year. Bruce Ellington has spent most of the year at receiver, but could be called upon to help in the rushing attack. Eric Baker and Kenny Miles have a lot of experience, but both have been banged up this season.
Although the Gamecocks may be able to patch together a rushing attack, it’s not going to equal anything close to what Lattimore brought to the table.
If South Carolina wants to get back to Atlanta for the SEC title, Shaw to continue to develop at quarterback. With the rushing game taking a step back, the offense will have to lean a little more on Shaw and receiver Alshon Jeffery.
The Gamecocks will also need the defense to continue their recent play. South Carolina’s last four opponents have not managed more than 16 points. Also, the defense ranks 19th nationally in points allowed and ninth in total defense. The Gamecocks own the SEC’s best secondary, allowing only 133.7 yards per game, but that total is skewed by the recent run of opponents with shaky quarterback play – Vanderbilt, Auburn, Kentucky and Mississippi State.
It’s not out of the question for South Carolina to rally and claim the SEC East title. After all, three losses won the division last year.
With a win over Georgia, the Gamecocks still control their own destiny. However, Lattimore is a huge loss and one that won’t be replaced.
Although Georgia still has a tough game remaining against Florida, the path to Atlanta is there for the Bulldogs. And without Lattimore in the lineup for South Carolina, Georgia will represent the East in the SEC title game in December.