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September 9, 2013

The good, bad and unknown

The Gamecocks' latest trip to Sanford Stadium revealed plenty about how the team is shaping up two weeks into the season. Here are a few observations - the good, the bad and the unknown - from South Carolina's performance in a 41-30 loss to Georgia.

The Good

Mike Davis. In a game of misfortune and missed opportunities, Davis had the best day of anyone in a white uniform. The sophomore tailback churned out 149 yards and a rushing touchdown on just 16 carries and added four catches for 49 extra yards in a performance reminiscent of former Gamecock Marcus Lattimore.

He was South Carolina's offensive sparkplug, grinding out tough yards when Georgia loaded the box and punishing the Bulldogs when they didn't. The only thing left for Davis to do is convince the coaching staff to put the ball in his hands more often.

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Resilience. Say what you want about the team's inability to pick up a tough SEC road win in Athens, the players on the field fought repeatedly to climb back into the game. And barring some playcalling miscues and a freak fumble, they very well could have. Down 17-3 in the second quarter in front of a hostile crowd, the Gamecocks could have thrown in the towel.

Plenty of teams have done so under less intimidating circumstances. Georgia did it last year in Williams-Brice, for instance. But South Carolina put together a 21-point second quarter and pulled back into the race. The theme continued throughout the game, with the Bulldogs pulling ahead and South Carolina struggling to play catch-up. Though the Gamecocks couldn't outrun their own mistakes, they also didn't flinch in the face of adversity.

Nick Jones. Jones may appear an unlikely contributor in SEC competition, but the junior wideout is as confident and versatile as any receiver on the roster. The 5-foot-7, 174-pounder hauled in two of South Carolina's second-quarter touchdowns and finished with a career-high six catches for 97 yards. With Bruce Ellington still shaking off rust, Jones - who can play any of South Carolina's three receiver positions - proved himself a dependable target.

Tyler Hull. A week after punting five times for an SEC-worst average of 33.2 yards against North Carolina, the redshirt junior punted twice for a 46-yard average. Maybe more importantly, Tyler Hull only had to punt twice.

The Bad

Porous defense. What a difference a year and a change of scenery makes. Eleven months after holding a No. 6 Georgia team to seven points and 224 total yards, the Gamecocks were gashed by the Bulldogs for 536 points and the highest point total South Carolina's allowed since the 44-11 loss to Florida.

An un-pressured Aaron Murray had perhaps the best game of his career, and the Bulldog offensive line had its way with a South Carolina defensive front that has underperformed in two games this season. What's more, the Gamecock defense couldn't get off the field and or keep up with Georgia's surprisingly up-tempo offense.

Lack of leadership in the secondary. Steve Spurrier lamented the lack of a D.J. Swearinger-type personality on his defense Saturday, and so did South Carolina's fan base. One major question surrounding the defense heading into fall camp centered on who would step up as the vocal leader in lieu of Swearinger. It has gone largely unanswered, as free safety Brison Williams and cornerback Jimmy Legree are far from vocal and Victor Hampton spent the first half Saturday serving a suspension for violating team rules.

Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward told us in the preseason his defense would have leadership by committee, but Saturday's tilt told us otherwise. Defensive backs young and old were repeatedly caught out of position, and Murray made them pay.

Playcalling. Hindsight is 20/20, and I don't pretend to be a fraction of the playcaller Steve Spurrier is. But some of the decisions were downright frustrating. Why did Mike Davis and Connor Shaw rush the ball the same amount of times, and why is a player that averages 9.4 yards a carry (Davis) being limited to 14 carries per game?

Why is the word "shotgun" even mentioned in conversation when the distance from the line of scrimmage to the goal line can be described in terms of inches? Several of these decisions baffled me, though I'll say infinitely more of Spurrier's play calls have been fantastic and gone unrecognized.

The Unknown

Identity. What kind of a team is South Carolina shaping up to be? Is this a team that can rely on the defense or one with an offense styled to outscore the competition? Is this is a team that can grit out tough wins on the road, or should Gamecock fans learn to cope with the idea that they're only a good team at home or in neutral locations?

Shaq Roland. I've mentioned Roland before, but maybe it's worth mentioning twice in one column. Roland is perhaps the most physically talented player on South Carolina's roster. He can do things no one else on the field can, evidenced by his fourth-quarter sideline circus grab that had to bring back fond memories of A.J. Green to the Georgia faithful in attendance.

But what kind of weekly production can we expect from a receiver of any talent level who is still figuring out where he's supposed to be lined up on each play? On that final drive, Roland looked every bit the go-to receiver Alshon Jeffery used to be for South Carolina, but can he continue to improve the finer aspects of his game to be that target consistently?

Davis' pace. He's come out of the gates strong, having rushed 28 times for 264 yard and two touchdowns, but how long can Mike Davis keep this pace up? Are we being deluded by two 75-yard bursts, or is this a guy who can consistently perform at this level? All signs point to the latter, but only time will tell whether or not he can become the iconic back he's on pace to be.

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