The South Carolina Gamecocks are a program at a crossroads. Twelve months ago Gamecocks fans watched previews on the SEC Network predicting an 11-1 season and national championship contention. And just two years ago the program's greatest team took the field.
Instead, 2014 produced an unsatisfying 7-6 campaign. It speaks well of the recent state of South Carolina football that 7-6 and a bowl victory is considered unsatisfying. But that won't continue unless USC improves this season. Here are the five questions that must be answered for that to happen.
South Carolina’s Five Biggest Fall Camp Storylines
1. Who is the Starting Quarterback?
Sophomore Connor Mitch tops the depth chart. Mitch is the second-most prolific passer in the history of North Carolina high school football. He is to be challenged by former walk-on Perry Orth and freshman Michael Scarnecchia. It's Mitch's job to lose. If Mitch can't beat out a walk-on or a freshman for the starting position, or if head coach Steve Spurrier resorts to flip-flopping quarterbacks as he did prior to the Connor Shaw era, something is wrong.
2. How Much Will the Defense Improve?
South Carolina registered only 14 sacks in 2014. The only opponents who didn't score 20 or more points were Furman and South Alabama. New defensive coordinator Jon Hoke will switch from a 4-2-5 to a 4-3 base on non-passing downs. Hoke learned the zone blitz from Dom Capers and was Spurrier's defensive coordinator at Florida from 1999-2001. Remember in 2000 when Carolina had a 21-3 lead buoyed by two blocked punts at Florida, then were outscored 38-0 in the final three quarters with the SEC East title on the line?
The pass rush must improve. Spurrier has brought in the coach who can do it. The question is if the players are good enough, which brings us too…
3. What Impact Will the Transfers Have?
Spurrier and Hoke added two transfers from Kansas, junior college defensive end Marquavius Lewis and former Kansas Jayhawks safety Isaiah Johnson.
Lewis was to Hutchinson Community (Kan.) College what Jadeveon Clowney was to the Gamecocks, recording 39.5 tackles for loss and 18.5 sacks during his JUCO career and leading the Bobcats to a program-best No. 4 final ranking.
Johnson accounted for 148 tackles in two seasons at Kansas.
Now, in a zone blitz, those totals are enticing. Both players must play to such levels for the Gamecocks to return to the top of the SEC East.
4. The Spurrier Question
It's not how much longer he'll coach. It's "Will Spurrier have 'That Game?'"
Carolina fans don't want to knock Spurrier. No other South Carolina coach has won 11 games in a season, much less for three straight years. But in 2013 "That Game" cost the Gamecocks the SEC East crown and a potential shot at a trip for the BCS National Championship Game. When Shaw was knocked out at Tennessee with South Carolina holding a 21-20 lead, Spurrier turned conservative with Dylan Thompson at the helm, running the ball three times from inside his 30 in the Gamecocks’ final possession, then inexplicitly calling two time uts on fourth down before punting the ball away.
A first down would've likely won the game. Instead, Spurrier so horribly mismanaged the circumstance he not only gave Tennessee possession for the winning score in a 23-21 loss, he also couldn't save any time for his team to get the ball back.
In 2010 "That Game," was a 31-28 loss at Kentucky, where with 11 seconds left and no timeouts Spurrier disdained a 37-yard-field goal try for a Steven Garcia pass into the end zone, resulting in an interception. Maybe South Carolina history is so filled with "That Game" examples that Gamecock fans are willing to forgive such strategic gaffes. But South Carolina didn't lose to Navy in 1984 because of strategy, and Spurrier never had an undefeated season in Florida.
He always had "That Game."
5. Pharoh Cooper’s Heisman Candidacy?
Cooper isn't on the preseason Heisman lists. But last season he was named first team All-SEC as a sophomore after accounting for more than 1,400 total yards, including 1,136 receiving on 69 catches. He also set the South Carolina single-game receiving record with 233 yards against Tennessee, and did everything a player can do on offense except kick. Given his ability to score or make a big play in a myriad of ways, a collection of big games against powerhouse opponents could propel Cooper into the Heisman conversation. What's more, a monster season from Cooper is a necessity if the Gamecocks are to recapture the glory they enjoyed at the start of the decade.
— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson has been a contributor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 15 years. He has covered the Steelers, Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.