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10 questions at the halfway mark

We're at the halfway mark of the 2014 season for South Carolina. With the bye week, the time is right to take inventory. Here are 10 important questions:
1. How would you rate Dylan Thompson's performance at quarterback?: Good, but not great. Quarterbacks are judged based on wins and losses. Except for the fourth quarters against Missouri and Kentucky, Thompson has played very well in stretches, the reason he remains within striking distance of USC's single season records for passing yards (on pace for 3,154) and touchdowns passes (on pace for 26). If USC goes to a bowl game, he could break both records. But if USC finishes with a disappointing record, any individual records would offer Thompson little consolation.
While the backup quarterback is always the most popular player on the team amongst the fans, the lack of experience in backups Connor Mitch and Perry Orth virtually guarantees Thompson will go the distance regardless of how he performs. Mitch and Orth could get some snaps against Furman and/or South Alabama if circumstances warrant (translation: lopsided score). Barring a serious injury to Thompson, there is zero chance either backup will appear in an SEC game or at Clemson. Good or bad, this has been Thompson's show since the start of the season.
2. What's going on with Shaq Roland and Damiere Byrd?: Byrd finally demonstrated signs of getting involved in the offense with four catches for 24 yards at Kentucky (6.0 yards per catch for a guy possessing his blazing speed is unfathomable), a game Roland missed for "violation of team rules" (Spurrier referred to it as "personal issues" on his call-in show last night). Until the Kentucky game, Byrd had not caught more than one pass in any contest this year. Roland, meanwhile, has 15 receptions in five games, but seven of those came against East Carolina. So, he has eight catches in the other games, a miniscule number for a guy with his ability.
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3. Will Lorenzo Ward get the defensive problems fixed?: Somewhere, Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles, Chaz Sutton and Victor Hampton are laughing at all the preseason talk about how the USC defense would be better in 2014 because it would rely less on one or two players and more on a "team concept." At this point, Ward probably wishes he had a superstar or two on defense. Right now, the Gamecocks are buried in the bottom three teams of the SEC in all four major defensive categories.
After the Texas A&M debacle, the defense showed steady progress over the next four games. But the same problems we saw in the opener cropped up again in the fourth quarter of the Missouri loss, and, according to Ward, the Kentucky game was almost as poor as the Texas A&M performance. The litany of problems afflicting the USC defense include poor tackling, bad execution, missed assignments, glaring lack of a pass rush, failure to create turnovers, youth at certain spots, etc. It's as much about attitude as aptitude. Furman promises an opportunity to improve.
5. Who is the Offensive MVP?: Good question. At first glance, the primary candidates are Pharoh Cooper (30 receptions for 379 yards) and Thompson (1,577 passing yards, 13 TD passes), with Nick Jones (27 receptions) and Mike Davis (551 yards) deserving consideration. But the true offensive MVP is a guy many people wouldn't think of right away. Elliott Fry hasn't missed a field goal attempt since the opener vs. Texas A&M. He is 10-for-10 inside of 50 yards. His four field goals were a major reason USC was able to stave off East Carolina in Week 2. The following week, his field goal was the difference against Georgia. Fry may be a special teams performer, but he has been the most reliable point-scorer for the Gamecocks so far in 2014. So, the Offensive MVP is Elliott Fry.
6. Who is the Defensive MVP?: Better question. Is there a MVP when a unit performs as poorly as USC has in crunch time the past two weeks, or is as lowly ranked in most statistical categories as they are within the SEC? No. The easy choice would be to give the award to Skai Moore, who leads USC in tackles with 41. But we'll see how the final six games unfold before naming a Defensive MVP.
7. What will the starting offensive line look like when USC goes to Auburn on Oct. 25?: An intriguing question with Cody Waldrop and Mike Matulis in the final stages of rehab from knee injuries. The 'Big 3' is set with Robinson, Cann and Shell, leaving center and right guard as the only two positions up for grabs. Redshirt freshman Alan Knott has done a very good job at center (except for the shotgun snap that went awry at UK), so his position does not appear to be in danger. Could we end up with Sport, Waldrop and Matulis competing for the right guard spot? If Matulis is ready to play, and he convinces Elliott he can perform at an SEC level, don't be surprised if the O-Line coach leans on his experience at Auburn, where the crowd noise should be deafening.
8. Will David Williams get more carries in the second half?: I'm sure most Gamecock fans hope so. Through six games, the redshirt freshman has 10 carries for 44 yards and one touchdown. If the Furman game progresses as expected (and with Brandon Wilds questionable with a sprained knee), Williams should get 10+ carries and for the first time in his career, a fair opportunity to showcase his skills. Same for the South Alabama game on Oct. 22. Williams could get 20-30 carries between those two games and do enough things to whet the collective appetites of USC fans for spring practice.
9. Will USC's kickoff coverage ever finish in the top half of the SEC?: Best question of all. As we documented after the Vanderbilt game, USC's kickoff coverage unit has failed to finish in the upper half of the SEC in the past half dozen years or so. So, the problems bubbling to the surface this season are nothing new. USC has changed coaches, players and schemes, and nothing has catapulted the Gamecocks up the rankings. The latest breakdown came at Kentucky when USC allowed a 41-yard return to the SC 47 after the Gamecocks had just scored to make it 38-24. With six games in the books, USC is, not surprisingly, last in the SEC in kickoff coverage (36.0 net yards). Hey, look on the bright side, the Gamecocks have no place to go but up.
10. What will be USC's final regular season record?: USC needs three wins to qualify for a bowl game. Expected wins over Furman and South Alabama put the Gamecocks one win away. At this point, considering USC's defensive concerns, the chances of going to the Plains and beating Auburn are slim. It's probably also unrealistic to believe USC sweeps Tennessee, Florida and Clemson, especially with the latter two on the road. But I think USC wins two of three. So, I'll predict the Gamecocks finish 7-5 and face an ACC team in the Belk Bowl in Charlotte.
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