GAMECOCKS 2007: FIVE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Protection, protection, protection. C&F is going to try not to be too repetitive with the "5 things to watch in 2007" feature, but this one cannot be overstated: The offensive line has to keep Blake or Chris Smelley or whoever's under center (are we sure Syvelle's out of eligibility?) upright. Blake makes mistakes for many reasons, but one of the top ones is a lack of protection. There are three new starters on the line, and they have to step up, or the dreams of competing in the SEC will turn to dying hopes of remaining bowl eligible.
2. Cory Boyd tilts the balance. Boyd and backup Mike Davis have to continue to provide balance for the offense. It's pretty clear that Blake is probably not the guy to lead South Carolina to an SEC title; that said, being a solid SEC team is not out of reach. But it depends entirely on whether the running game can take some of the pressure off Mitchell. If it can, it will both help cover up Mitchell's weaknesses and divert some of the defense's attention.
3. Georgia. The State has made the point ad nauseum, but it's a point worth making. The winner of South Carolina-Georgia ends up in the SEC East race until late in the season, while the loser usually ends up in a lower-tier bowl. This is as close to a must-win as it comes if the Gamecocks want to have the kind of 8-4 or 9-3 season that would prove the program is still on the rise. If not, plan on visiting another bowl named after a word found in the U.S. Constitution.
Not just bad for a game. Bad for a season.
4. Closing things out. The story of 2006 was sickeningly similar every time South Carolina faced the best in the SEC: Get into a position to win, then make the critical mistake and watch it slip away. The 15-minute time of possession for Auburn in the third quarter; Tennessee pulling it out in the fourth quarter; the turnover to Arkansas on the decisive drive; and, most painfully of all, the decision not to permanently injure Jarvis Moss before the critical kick against Florida. Even if the Gamecocks just want to be competitive, they have to learn how to close out the wins against the Big Three and the Western powers.
5. Stop the run. This is the one thing that Tyrone Nix's defenses have not done well. The 146.8 ypg coughed up in 2006 were not terrible, but the numbers were worse when individual games and situations are considered. SEC rushers had considerably better luck, including 219 yards posted by (who else?) Darren McFadden. Four different backs -- McFadden, Auburn's Kenny Irons, Clemson's C.J. Spiller and Houston's Jackie Battle -- each scored 2 TDs against South Carolina. South Carolina will play two of those backs again in 2007. Success against the run will be the key to the defense this year.