Forty-four practices and seven months of waiting stand between South Carolina and the 2012 season opener at Vanderbilt on Aug. 30. The anticipation and expectations for the upcoming season will be off-the-charts when August finally arrives. What are some of the things that must happen for USC to enjoy another successful season?
1. Develop A Downfield Passing Attack: USC has all the ingredients in place for a spectacularly good rushing attack next season. Marcus Lattimore should be healthy again and Connor Shaw proved masterful at running the zone read play over the second half of the season. Between the inside zone (2010's bread and butter play), the zone read (Shaw's favorite) and sweeps and reverses with rising sophomore Damiere Byrd and others, parlaying their outstanding personnel into offensive success means USC should be able to grind out huge chunks of yardage on the ground.
But this is Steve Spurrier we're still talking about. He cherishes opportunities to throw the ball vertically downfield and feature a balanced attack running and passing. In 2011, USC occasionally took shots deep down the middle of the field with little success. Byrd, in fact, finished with just one reception, far less than most analysts thought when the season started. If USC is unable to keep defenses honest and on their toes, opponents will continue to stack the box with eight or nine defenders and make life as difficult as possible for Lattimore, Shaw and anybody else on USC trying to run the football.
USC finished the 2011 season ranked third in the SEC in rushing offense (192.1 yards per game) and managed to overcome the season-ending knee injury to Lattimore in Week 7. But they were just seventh in passing offense (181.5 ypg), marking one of the few times in his coaching career one of Spurrier's offenses has averaged more yards on the ground than through the air.
2. Decrease The Number Of Turnovers: When you glance at the statistics, you see the Gamecocks finished fourth in the SEC in turnover margin with a plus-five rating. However, when you dig deeper, you realize there is a problem. USC turned the ball over 27 times last season, an average of 2.1 times per game. Only one team (Vanderbilt with 28) committed more turnovers than the Gamecocks. The major reason USC was able to finish in the black was because the defense proved adept at taking the ball away - the Gamecocks matched Georgia for the highest number of takeaways in the SEC with 32.
Frankly, USC can't count on its defense coming up with nearly three forced turnovers per game, although they are certainly capable of pulling it off. As a result, USC must find a way to shrink the number of giveaways. Fortunately, the Gamecocks found a way to achieve that over the final seven games of the season. In the first five games of the 2011 season (four games started by Stephen Garcia), USC committed 15 turnovers, an average of 3.0 per game. However, over the last eight games, the Gamecocks had just 12 turnovers, an average of 1.5 per game. Essentially, they sliced the turnover rate in half.
A big reason for that slowdown was the decreasing number of interceptions thrown by USC quarterbacks. Garcia tossed nine interceptions in 118 pass attempts, an average of one pick for every 13.1 passes thrown. After taking over the starting QB job in Week 6, Shaw threw six interceptions in 188 pass attempts, meaning he threw an interception once every 31.3 passes. That's a huge difference.
3. Improve The Kickoff Coverage Unit: Special teams were a mixed bag for USC in 2011. Kickoff returns (21.8 yards per return) and punt returns (7.8 ypr) finished in the middle of the SEC pack. Hence, they weren't great without being poor either. USC was 11th in punting as Joey Scribner-Howard struggled with his consistency. Too often, a 55-yard boomer would be followed by a 25-yard shank off the side of the foot. Scribner-Howard averaged a mediocre 38.9 yards per boot, 5.2 yards less than Spencer Lanning (44.1 ypk) in 2010, a significant difference.
But one unit that always seems to struggle again stuck out like a sore thumb - kickoff coverage. USC again finished in last place in the category with a net kickoff average of 40.0 yards. Ten of the other 11 SEC schools averaged 43.7 yards or more in net kickoff average, so USC trailed far behind most of the league when it came to covering kickoffs. More than anything, new special teams coordinator Joe Robinson will be judged by how well USC's kickoff coverage unit performs. If it shows steady improvement, Spurrier will be pleased. By this point, he isn't demanding a top three finish in the SEC; just stay in the middle of the pack and don't give up any big returns that alter field position. Hopefully, whatever scheme Robinson installs works because little has proven successful in the past.
4. Continue To Play Solid Red Zone Defense: The USC defense showed up in Ellis Johnson's final season as Assistant Head Coach for Defense, ranking third in the SEC and nationally in total defense (267.7 ypg), third in the SEC in scoring defense (18.4 ypg) and second in passing defense (131.7 ypg). Another area where USC excelled was red zone defense. Again, you have to look beyond the numbers appearing in the SEC stats package. Those statistics reflect an eighth-place finish by the Gamecocks with a scoring percentage of 81.0 percent (34-42) by opposing offenses whenever they penetrated inside the 20-yard line.
However, out of those 42 trips into the red zone, opponents scored just 20 touchdowns, a TD percentage of less than 50 percent. Only three other SEC schools held foes under 50 percent in the same category: Alabama (6-17), LSU (12-26) and Mississippi State (21-46). In fact, Gamecock opponents kicked 14 field goals - highest number in the SEC - and turned it over four times inside the 20-yard line. Only Mississippi State forced a greater number of turnovers in the red zone (5). Six teams created one or less red zone turnovers. Spurrier attributed a portion of USC's defensive success in 2011 to unyielding red zone defense. Hopefully, the positive trend of the Gamecock defense stiffening whenever the opponent crossed the USC 20-yard line will continue into 2012.
5. Win The First Five Games: The last thing USC wants to do is take a step back from the historic 11-win season in 2011. Instead, the Gamecocks must show the program is continuing to move in the right direction. They have the talent to win 11 games again next season, and Spurrier quickly told his team in the happy locker room following the capital One Bowl win over Nebraska that the 2012 team would start off with the goal of winning 12 games. If USC wants to achieve another school record for most wins in a single season, they can't afford any slip up in the first five games of the season.
Frankly, the schedule is set up perfectly for a 5-0 start heading into the expected showdown with Georgia on Oct. 6 (remember, schedule makers revised the schedule). The season opener at Vanderbilt on Aug. 30 will be a tough test because James Franklin will have the Commodores ready in Nashville for a rare national TV appearance by his team. But USC should win the game because it should be the better team. Three straight home games against East Carolina (9/8), UAB (9/15) and Missouri (9/22) follow. A loss in any of those contests would be catastrophic, and considered a major upset. Finally, USC travels to Kentucky on Sept. 29 for the second SEC road test of the season. Again, that should be a win.
Because of where it will likely start the season as far as the polls are concerned, USC should be firmly entrenched inside the Top 10 of most polls when Georgia arrives in Columbia for the Oct. 6 showdown. The second half of the schedule is significantly more difficult with match-ups against LSU, Florida, Arkansas and Clemson. So, anything less than a 5-0 start could help produce a disappointing season.
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