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December 13, 2013

Rush's Roundtable

In this special feature, Gamecock Central's football insiders answer five questions about the Gamecocks.

1. What are your early thoughts on the matchup for South Carolina against Wisconsin in the Capital One Bowl?

JOSH LOW: I think this is probably the best team South Carolina has faced over the last three years in their bowl matchups. They have one of the best rushing attacks in the country led by Melvin Gordon and James White. Gordon is actually the backup running back, but I think he is the better of the two. The first priority for South Carolina's defense is going to have to be to stop the run. They have to force Wisconsin quarterback Joel Stave to make plays with his arm. Wisconsin runs a 3-4 defense and is ranked near the top in the country. They are tough against the run, but have struggled some with running quarterbacks. Connor Shaw will need to have a good day with his legs and arm.

AVERY WILKS: Wisconsin is always a tough opponent. The Badgers love physicality, play good defense and field a ground-and-pound rushing attack every season. But it's hard to gauge how good the Badgers are this year, given their mercurial play this season. Wisconsin hasn't beaten any teams currently ranked in the Top 25 and lost by a 31-24 score to both No. 7 Ohio State and unranked Penn State. Considering the Gamecocks are second in the SEC only to Alabama in stopping the run, I think South Carolina matches up favorably with the Badgers.

RON AIKEN: Wisconsin is ranked where they are for a reason, and South Carolina should be able to handle the Badger's prolific rushing attack with a strong front four, fast group of linebackers and the extra time for Lorenzo Ward to prepare.

CHRIS CLARK: I think it's an intriguing matchup given that it's the first-ever battle between the two programs on the gridiron and Wisconsin is a different type of opponent than USC has seen this season. The first thought when Wisconsin is the subject is that the Badgers have not one, but two 1,000 yard rushers in Melvin Gordon and James White along with a big offensive line. There is also a 1,000-yard receiver in Jared Abbrederis who can make teams pay for only paying attention to the run, but that will be the number one priority for USC's defense. All of Wisconsin's losses have been close games. Statistically, the Badger defense is up towards the top of the country in points allowed although that number has been helped by playing some poor offensive squads. This will be another game in which USC has to take care of the ball to win.

2. With the news that Ahmad Christian is transferring, how big of a concern is the cornerback position going into next season? How can they fix it?

JOSH LOW: I think it is a huge concern. Rico McWilliams is the only returning corner that has experience, and it is very little. Recruiting is how they fix the problem. The good news is that cornerback is a position where true freshmen can come in and make a big impact. Another good thing for South Carolina is that they are firmly in the mix for D.J. Smith and Wesley Green. They are potential immediate impact players at cornerback.

AVERY WILKS: The cornerback position would have been South Carolina's biggest concern next season even if Christian had returned. Now it's a problem that needs addressing right away. Rico McWilliams and Ronnie Martin look to be the only remaining corners with any playing experience - having combined for just one tackle this season - and both of the incoming freshmen at the position will be hampered by injuries heading into the offseason. South Carolina's fix could come from a few extra hours on the recruiting trail or by moving Chaz Elder, Pharoh Cooper or Jamari Smith to cornerback over the offseason. I wouldn't mind seeing Cooper playing both ways, for that matter.

RON AIKEN: It's a head-scratcher that leaves USC far too thin for comfort next season and could mean the transfer back to defense of Jamari Smith. I think there are enough people, though, to find two good ones, especially Rico McWilliams and Ronnie Martin, should they take advantage of the opportunity and respond to coaching. From last year's class, a sleeper candidate could be Jasper Sasser, though he seems like more of a safety.

CHRIS CLARK: It was already a concern and the Christian news only bolsters the fact that USC will be very young and very inexperienced going into next season. It reminds a bit of the situation at linebacker going into 2013, but at least in that case there were guys that USC could throw into the fire. USC doesn't have numbers at cornerback either. Perhaps a guy or two gets moved over, and no doubt USC will be counting on some true freshmen which makes it important that the staff close strong in recruiting at that position this cycle. USC's defensive coaches may have to make some adjustments scheme-wise as well to mask any weaknesses and play to the team's strengths as well.

3. How important are bowl practices for the younger players on the team?

JOSH LOW: It is important. It is important for the development of some of them, definitely the linemen. The coaches can treat the first few practices like they would spring practice. It is also an opportunity for some of the younger players to impress and have some momentum going into the spring.

AVERY WILKS: It's a chance to get more reps, to work on fundamentals and to enjoy the experience of practicing for the postseason - almost like a mini-spring. And with a number of players graduating or leaving early, younger players - especially on defense - will have the opportunity to show their stuff to the coaching staff and get a leg up on the competition heading into the spring.

RON AIKEN: They are critical. Cannot be overstated. Like an extra spring. I spoke with Shawn Elliott before the Missouri game and talked about O-line development, and he mentioned just how big these past few years of bowl practice have been for the young linemen, so it holds true for everybody. Bowl practices aren't where you wear out your starters, they're where you reward them and develop your depth.

CHRIS CLARK: Steve Spurrier himself has mentioned many times that it's a big learning opportunity for the youngsters. Particularly at positions like DE and CB where USC will need contributions from young players next season, any practice reps become important. It's an extra slate of practices before spring ball starts up and every snap in practice helps.

4. South Carolina has a chance to win 11 games for the third year in a row. What does that say for where the program is currently? What is the next step?

JOSH LOW: It would put them in rare company. It would put them in Alabama-, Oregon- and Stanford-type of company. It is even more impressive that they have done it in the SEC. There aren't many SEC teams that can say they have won 11 games three years in a row. The next step is obviously winning a championship. It is about the only thing this program hasn't accomplished while Steve Spurrier has been at South Carolina.

AVERY WILKS: Considering where the program was before Spurrier's arrival, having three straight 11-win seasons would be huge. It would reinforce the 180-degree turnaround the program has made recently, and it would provide more evidence to the argument that that turnaround hasn't been a fluke. Still, fans that endured decades of losing are already getting restless, already growing bored of watching other SEC East teams play in Atlanta, of playing Big Ten teams in Florida bowl games, and of hanging around at the back end of the nation's Top 10. The next step has to be at least an SEC Championship Game appearance. 2010 is quickly fading into a distant memory, and this team desperately needs another shot at the conference title soon.

RON AIKEN: It is historic success. Nothing more needs to be said about it. Heights never before reached. And, what's great is that the next step is a short one. All a program can hope is to be knocking on the door of a championship shot, and USC has done that three years in a row. Do that long enough, and eventually it's your turn, just like in baseball.

CHRIS CLARK: It's a huge accomplishment for South Carolina. While fans are understandably upset about a bad loss at Tennessee preventing the Gamecocks from heading to Atlanta for a chance at an SEC title (and more), USC's consistency in the win-loss column over the past three seasons has been unprecedented for the program. Not many schools at all have been ranked for as long as USC or accumulated the number of wins that Spurrier has recently in Columbia. That said, no doubt the next step is to take care of business in games that should be winnable and to get back to Atlanta for a chance at the school's first title.

5. Is this the best coaching job Steve Spurrier has ever done during his years at South Carolina?

JOSH LOW: I don't think it is. The last two years this team has overcome the loss of their leader in Marcus Lattimore and finished the season strong. That is hard to beat unless you win a championship. He did have a lot of talent returning on the offensive side of the ball and I think you could make an argument that the offense was at its best this year. They did lose a lot on the defensive side of the ball and the job the defensive coaches did with that group was outstanding. To be honest, the last three years have been very similar.

AVERY WILKS: I don't think this has his best season at South Carolina, though it's one of them. This team was loaded with talent coming in, so a double-digit win season isn't all that surprising. He does deserve credit for building a program where that type of success is expected. I'd say Spurrier's best coaching job was in 2011, when he navigated the Stephen Garcia situation, helped the team get past Marcus Lattimore's injury, beat Clemson for the third straight time, and put together the program's first 11-win season.

RON AIKEN: Hard to say, because a lot was expected. He had weapons on offense, and the offense did well for the most part, with the glaring exception of Tennessee. Since he doesn't control or have much of anything to do with the defense, I can't give him credit for their impressive development but rather I give that glory to those guys. It was a relatively easy year schedule-wise, and with as much emphasis on the UGA game (a loss) and the destructive force the Tennessee loss ended up possessing, I'm going to say no, it's not his best. Beat either UT or UGA and sure, but any year you lose two of the three games against the traditional Big Three in the East -- UGA, UT and UF -- you probably don't deserve to win the division, and to call something the "best" in his time at USC, you need some kind of conference hardware for that.

CHRIS CLARK: I think it's a similar coaching job to last season, and both are of course very good jobs overall to win double-digit games. USC lost some key guys on defense last season and returned almost everyone on offense so that has to be factored in to the equation. Lorenzo Ward and the defensive staff deserve the credit for improving the defense as the season went on with an abundance of youth at linebacker. Spurrier gets the due as the head man for any wins and losses; the Tennessee one (loss) was bad this season but then being able to pull out close games with adversity, making the call to put Connor Shaw in at Missouri, those things all point to a strong coaching job this year on the whole.

DM



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