Practice for the 2011 season officially gets underway on Wednesday (the first workout at 7:30 p.m. is open to the public), so it's time to present our 10 predictions for the season. As we know, most, if not all, of these prognostications will come true. Or maybe not. Here are predictions No. 6-10.
6. USC Will Set A School Record For Most Points In A Single Season: Although it wasn't publicized much, the Gamecocks set a school record for most points in one season a year ago with 433, an average of 30.9 points per game. Of course, playing 14 games, most in school history, helped the cause. But Marcus Lattimore, Alshon Jeffery and Stephen Garcia had integral roles as well. With all three of those weapons back, USC should be primed to establish another scoring record. And it should begin quickly with USC facing a soft East Carolina defense in the opener. Fifty points anyone?
The Pirates had the worst defense in the nation last season, and even a change to the 3-4 scheme might not help things too much. Lattimore and Jeffery should boost each other's production because defenses won't be able to focus exclusively on one and ignore the other. For example, what would happen if the opposing defense puts eight guys in the box to stop Lattimore? That's right, one-on-one coverage for Jeffery on the outside. And what would happen if Jeffery is double-teamed? More running room for Lattimore. Basically, the USC coaches hope opposing defenses are forced to pick their poison.
7. Shaq Wilson Will Lead USC In Tackles: Wilson is finally healthy after missing most of the 2010 season with a severely strained hamstring suffered on the first day of preseason camp. How serious was the injury? It wasn't 100 percent healed in spring practice, which led to USC's defensive coaches taking a cautious approach. When Wilson is happy and active, we've seen the results. He led the Gamecocks in tackles in 2009 with 85 despite not possessing the massive physical size of a prototypical SEC middle linebacker.
Wilson should benefit from USC's exceptionally talented defensive line. Just as with Lattimore and Jeffery, opposing offensive lines will likely be discouraged from double-teaming anybody because that means someone else will roam free. Because each defensive lineman should see single blocking, Wilson should be able to utilize his speed and quickness and fill the gaps without much resistance. If so, he could he headed for a monster season. Wilson needs 92 tackles to reach the 200-tackle milestone for his career. Don't be surprised if he gets there by the end of the season. And, remember, he still has one more year of eligibility left after this season. Three hundred career tackles? Possible, if he stays healthy. But only 11 players in school history have accumulated that many tackles. The last defender to do it was Rashad Faison in 2002.
8. USC Will Finally Score A Special-Teams Touchdown: Even Steve Spurrier has high hopes for the special teams in 2011, predicting a touchdown by that unit in 2011. However, his contention that the special teams haven't scored a TD since he became coach in 2005 isn't technically correct. Captain Munnerlyn scooped up the ball and raced 90 yards with a blocked field goal at Kentucky in 2008. But he made his point. USC needs more production from special teams, especially the return game. Kickoff returns and punt returns were sub-standard in 2010 and the Gamecocks must improve in both categories. With new special teams coordinator John Butler on board since February, Spurrier hopes that will happen.
Butler tweaked the blocking scheme in the spring and changed returners, making D.J. Swearinger the top kickoff returner. That decision prompted Spurrier not to renew the scholarship of Bryce Sherman, who averaged 20.4 yards per return in 2010 and faced diminishing playing time this season. Butler hopes Swearinger and incredibly fast freshman Damiere Byrd (Craig Fitzgerald says he won the race "going away" to determine the fastest player on the team) will energize USC's kickoff return team. They should.
9. USC Will Go Undefeated At Home: USC opens the season with a neutral site game in Charlotte (East Carolina) and a critical SEC East battle at Georgia before the Sept. 17 home opener against always-pesky Navy. With all due respect to the Midshipmen, the most challenging home games are against Auburn, Florida and Clemson. At this point, the Gamecocks are a better football team than all three of those future opponents. Auburn must rebuild the offense without Cam Newton and last season's senior-laden offensive line, Florida could already have four or five losses on its resume by the time the mid-November clash comes around and Clemson is hoping to get major contributions from too many inexperienced players on both sides of the ball. One major publication (The Sporting News) predicts the Tigers will finish fourth in the ACC's Atlantic Division.
USC should easily beat the other four opponents - Navy (USC has better athletes to stop the triple option), Vanderbilt (did you see its offense in 2010?), Kentucky (too many holes to fill on offense) and The Citadel (sorry, it's not 1990 anymore). The Gamecocks have won six home games in each of the last two seasons, but they'll go one better in 2011.
10. Jadeveon Clowney Will Be Named SEC Freshman of the Year: Would anything else be considered a disappointment? Sadly, in the eyes of many, the answer is yes for the latest "war daddy" for USC. That just shows the high expectations and incredible pressure Clowney faces in his maiden voyage through major college football. Yet, at the same time, the table is set for the ultra-ultra-ultra-talented Clowney to make a major impact in 2011. He might not beat out fifth-year senior Melvin Ingram for the starting job (frankly, he shouldn't, at least in the beginning), but he will definitely get plenty of opportunities to line up and make plays. In the immortal words of Spurrier, Clowney's job will be to rush the passer and chase the ball, two things he is very good at if you've taken the time to watch his stunning videos on YouTube.
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