Posted: 7:05 a.m. Thursday, Aug. 22, 2013
While I spent most of my time at ChickenHoops focused on our basketball program, I'm going to try to branch out a bit during football season (though my primary work here will still center around the hardwood). In any event, since most of what I do involves trying to apply statistical analysis to South Carolina's athletic programs, I thought a great way to continue my first week at GABA would be to write a post that summarizes the season previews of one of my favorite writers on the SBNation network - Bill Connelly.
Bill's a Missouri fan, also the purveyor of FootballStudyHall, and has painstakingly put together a preview of every college football team in the land for 2013. While I encourage you to read as many of them as interest you, clearly the ones that are of most relevance to you as a fan (aside of course, from his preview of our Gamecocks), are the previews of our opponents. So, I've gone through and linked each of those here, and pulled out an interestingly excerpt or two for you. I'm also linking the previews that GamecockMan put together here on GABA, so consider this your one-stop shop for previewing the 2013 season as we wind ever closer to kickoff.
A big thanks to the guys over at Tomahawk Nation for inspiring the idea.
Bill thinks Fedora will bring a decent Tar Heel team to Columbia, and notes they will be led in part by former Gaffney product Quishad Davis, who excelled in the North Carolina offense last year. He'll help the Tar Heels try to put together a second consecutive top 30 offense:
[F]our-star freshmen aren't supposed to just become the No. 1 receiver for a top-30 passing game right out of the box. Davis did. The Gaffney, South Carolina, product was an instant success, giving Bryn Renner a big possession target to go alongside tight end Eric Ebron, then-senior Erik Highsmith, and some good receiving running backs. And he was perhaps the primary reason for UNC's late offensive explosion. He had already put together a pretty decent freshman campaign, but he went nuclear in November, catching seven passes for 104 yards versus Georgia Tech, 16 (!) for 178 versus Virginia, and nine for 135 and two scores versus Maryland. UNC might not be able to trust its running game as much, but it was already weaker than the passing game. And as long as Renner isn't throwing every pass on second-and-11 or third-and-9, there's no reason to think UNC won't once again have at least a top-30 passing game.
However, he also noted that the Tar Heels defense struggled last year, particularly on third down, and that could continue to haunt them in 2013:
There was no blitz, and opponents knew they had no reason to fear sitting in the pocket and picking the defense apart on second- or third-and-long.
If you've got a stout front four, one that can generate pressure without the need of blitzing, then your 4-2-5 will click (any defense will, actually). But if middle linebacker Kevin Reddick or tackle Sly Williams weren't bringing down the quarterback, it's pretty to assume nobody was. Those two are gone now.
Connelly tells me what I know I know but keep forgetting in my fear of an actually decent first opponent: while the Tar Heels have some strengths, they simply are not as good as the Gamecocks this season, and that coupled with home-field advantage should lead the Gamecocks to a 1-0 record to start the season.
Connelly points out in his article something that Gamecock fans who only watched our game against the Bulldogs might not realize - that Georgia put together one of the best offenses in the country last season, and that they're returning most of the pieces that helped fuel that offense:
Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, whose last names combine to rhyme with "Herschel," gained 2,144 yards and scored 25 touchdowns last year. Gurley was a strong every-down power back with some explosiveness, while Marshall was a homerun hitter with a little bit of power. They are basically the entire show this year -- the Nos. 3-5 running backs are gone, so if Gurley or Marshall gets hurt, more true freshmen are getting carries -- but what a show that is. Oh yeah, and basically the entire two-deep on the offensive line returns, with 101 career starts.
And if healthy, this receiving corps could be ridiculous, as well. Malcolm Mitchell has the potential to fill in for the explosive Tavarres King, Arthur Lynch was a revelation at tight end, Michael Bennett was in the middle of a breakout season in 2012 when he hurt his knee, four-star junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph joins the mix (along with two four-star freshmen), and if you want to get an idea for Chris Conley's potential, just watch the above clip a few more times. His technique is still a work in progress (but hey, whose isn't?), but that speed is just ridiculous.
On the other side of the ball, the Georgia defense needs to replace a lot of pieces from a defense that, last year, was generally very good, but wasn't elite by any stretch, particularly by the standards that have been set by many in the SEC (Alabama, LSU, Florida, and yes, South Carolina) in the last few years:
Georgia must replace four of its top six linemen, four of its top five linebackers, and four of its top five defensive backs.
And despite all of those upperclassman stars -- Jones, John Jenkins, Kwame Geathers, Alec Ogletree, Bacarri Rambo, Shawn Williams, Sanders Commings, Branden Smith -- this was still only a good, not great, defense for most of the year. Yes, there were suspensions and injuries involved, and yes the unit caught fire late in the year. But it caught fire mostly because of players who are now gone.
As high as I am on Georgia's offense, I'm equally wary of Georgia's defense. It will still pass the eyeball test by all means, and it might eventually find a high level of play, but look at the Dawgs' schedule below. Three of their four toughest games happen before October. Do you really, honestly think this defense will find an elite level of play that quickly with this many new pieces? I don't.
So where do the Dawgs end up? As anyone who previews Georgia this season notes, how good a season Richt and company can put together down in Athens this year will be decided in the first two weeks of the year, when they travel to Clemson and host the Gamecocks.
Connelly sees some potential for the Vanderbilt offense to put together a decent season this year, improving on a season where they finished a rather lowly 77th in S&P;+ in the NCAA. Last year's success focused primarily on departed Zac Stacy overcoming a weak offensive line, but also on Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd playing like elite receivers, despite the attention they drew from defenses each week:
Opponents knew Jordan Rodgers was going to look to Matthews, especially on passing downs, and they couldn't stop it. And if they focused too much attention on Matthews, Chris Boyd would post up deep. Boyd averaged 15.5 yards per catch in 2012 but still improved his catch rate from 56 to 61 percent. It is quite difficult for a passing game with only two reliable receivers to succeed, and Vandy's passing game was indeed spotty at times, but don't blame Matthews and Boyd for that. They did everything they could.
And if they can get some help from a loaded freshman class that features two four-star recruits (receiver Jordan Cunningham -- because this team doesn't have enough Jordans -- and tight end Mitchell Parsons) and four high-three-stars, the winner of the QB derby could have a pretty easy job.
While the defensive line has some issues, Vanderbilt does return some talent on defense, and could take the next step from a top 50 team to a top 30 team, if its lines on both sides of the ball can get better. One area where Vanderbilt did excellent work last season (and where Carolina seems to perennially struggle) was on special teams:
Special Teams makes up about 10-15 percent of a game's outcome, on average; teams that can excel in this 10-15 percent can mask deficiencies and make game-changing plays when the offense and defense aren't on the field. You know, plays like Jonathan Krause'stwo punt return touchdowns, Carey Spear's seven field goals of 40+ yards, and Richard Kent's 22 punts downed inside the 20.
Vanderbilt ranked seventh in the country in Field Position Advantage despite an iffy ground game and an iffy run defense. Special teams was the primary reason why. Kent's gone, but Spears and all of the components of a damn strong return game return.
While the schedule does Vanderbilt no favors in their quest to return to a third straight bowl game, the fact that we're sitting here noting the fact the schedule impacts their ability to make a bowl (rather than their own ineptness preventing them from attending, as was true basically their entire history prior to Franklin's arrival) says a lot about how far Vanderbilt has come in the last few years.
Central Florida moves to the American Athletic Conference this season, which is a good name for a conference that basically houses everyone who used be in Conference USA. George O'Leary has built a consistent program down in Orlando, and the Gamecocks will need to be on upset alert as they make the trip that exists only because Eric Hyman really did have flaws as an athletic director (this game and every game against Wofford top his list of scheduling errors, for one), despite the sunshine pumping you always saw written about him at some premium sites.
As for the 2013 Knights, the offense was a top 40 unit last season, and could improve on that performance given what they have coming back:
the Knights return a steady quarterback, a potential stud running back (with "potential" being the key word), four to six strong receivers, and a line that should still be at least decent. Really, this year's questions could come on defense.
While UCF loses two offensive linemen from last year's squad, its firepower at the skill positions could test our defense, especially if we're looking ahead to [checks schedule] - phew, we play Kentucky next week. Hopefully we won't be looking ahead.
On the other side of the ball, it'll be hard to know how good UCF will be this year. They return 5 starters from a unit that placed 56th in S&P;+ last season, and while those players should improve, O'Leary's reluctance to turn to his bench means we won't know how good those other 6 players are until they take the field this fall:
The downside to playing with an intentionally small bench is that you end up with a lot of unknown quantities in the offseason. If [the] youngsters are stable and reasonably consistent, UCF's defense should once again find itself in the defensive top 50. But if not, the Knights could bleed over onto the wrong side of the top 50 again.
While I'm still pretty furious we scheduled this game, the preview (along with the fact a bye week and Kentucky bookend the game for us, while UCF travels to Happy Valley the weekend before) makes me think that USC should be able to avoid a trap game in Orlando. Thanks again, Eric!
With coaching changes occurring on the campuses of each of our next three opponents, the previews take a turn from analyzing the minor changes that will occur from year-to-year for our opposition to the wholesale changes you'll see on the field as each school tries to acclimate to their new coaching staff.
Kentucky may struggle with one of those classic bugaboos - the personnel and staff not matching, as the former was recruited by a different version of the latter:
[Offensive coordinator] Neal Brown likes to pass. A lot.
With Brown as offensive coordinator in 2012, Texas Tech ran just 39 percent of the time on standard downs, the second-lowest percentage in the country behind Washington State. The Red Raiders ran just 26 percent of the time on passing downs as well, which was 104th. His hire is a fun nod to Kentucky's Air Raid days with head coach Hal Mumme and offensive coordinator Mike Leach (now the head coach of the aforementioned Washington State Cougars), but it will be interesting to see how his play-calling meshes with the talent on hand.
Why? Because most of the talent on hand is at the running back position.
That, coupled with a defense that simply does not have upperclassmen with the talent needed to compete in the SEC, leads to the conclusion that the Wildcats will likely remain at the bottom of the SEC East heap, at least for 2013:
[T]he odds are very good that Kentucky will be the worst team in the East again, perhaps by a considerable margin. That the Wildcats drew Alabama from the West and host Louisville (which isn't projected nearly as high as conventional wisdom would suggest, but is still probably much better than Kentucky) makes this a rather brutal schedule, one that likely won't produce six wins.
When you fall apart to this degree, a quick fix almost certainly isn't going to happen. It will probably be another painful season in Lexington, but the combination of experience and improved recruiting might ensure that Kentucky becomes interesting as early as 2014.
Connelly notes that the data clearly indicates something that shouldn't come as too large a surprise (though the magnitude is somewhat surprising) - Tyler Wilson is what made the Arkansas offense go last season. Even against the Gamecocks, Arkansas moved the ball effectively, with turnovers being their great undoing.
Wilson really shouldn't have taken much, if any, blame for Arkansas' 2012 struggles. The Hogs' greatest struggles, actually, came with him on the sideline.
Adj. Points Per Game (with Tyler Wilson): 37.9
Adj. Points Per Game (with Brandon Allen): 20.0
Wilson was hurt late in the first half against UL-Monroe and missed the Alabama game; so he basically missed the six most atrocious offensive quarters of the season. The Oakland Raiders may have gotten a complete steal landing him in the fourth round of the draft.
Under new coach Bret Bielema, formerly of Wisconsin, Arkansas will try to re-build from a calamitous one-year John L. Smith Era. That re-build will require a substantial upgrade on both sides of the ball, particularly in the back seven of the defense:
9. Does experience matter?
If the answer is yes, that says some positive things about this year's Arkansas secondary, which has a lot more experience than it did nine months ago, when freshmen Rohan Gaines, Will Hines and Davyon McKinney and sophomores Tevin Mitchel and Alan Turner were all forced to play more minutes than they were ready to play. This time around, however, the top seven backs all return, and two junior college transfers enter the fray as well.
Of course, if experience indeed matters, then that says some extremely negative things about this year's Arkansas linebacking corps, which is replacing five of the seven players who logged at least 10.0 tackles in 2012. Sophomores A.J. Turner and Otha Peters are now the wily old veterans, and junior college transfers Martresll Spaight and Myke Tavarres have almost no choice but to be immediately ready for playing time. Without punter Dylan Breeding, one of the best in the country in 2012, Arkansas opponents might be seeing some shorter fields this fall; it is absolutely vital that improvement in the secondary doesn't simply offset regression at linebacker. The entire defense needs to step forward in 2013.
Just our luck that as soon as the Hogs fall off, we move away from them as a permanent opponent. Thanks again, Hyman.
The three game road trip begins with a swing through Knoxville to take on the Bruce Jones led Tennessee Volunteers. The Vols have struggled to match their production with their talent in the last few seasons, which led to the departure of Derek Dooley. Last year, the Vols matched a top 10 offense with a piss-poor defense. This year, a lot of the weapons that made that offense go have departed, and they'll once again be trying on a new defensive scheme.
The passing game was the star for Tennessee, and all of the primary pieces of that passing game are gone, namely Tyler Bray and his top four targets. Last year's backup, Justin Worley, barely played (and looked far from amazing when he did), and the top returning targets are two running backs and a receiver who averaged 2.3 yards per target last year. There are former four-star recruits everywhere you look -- quarterback Nathan Peterman, running backs Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane, receivers Alton Howard, Drae Bowls, Jason Croom, Marquez North, and Paul Harris -- but they are all ultra-young and completely unproven. This is probably going to take some patience.
However, they do return a substantial part of a unit that was a strength of their 2012 team - the offensive line.
[T]his was still one of the conference's better offensive lines; in 2013, the line returns six players with starting experience (including four seniors) and 124 career starts. All-conference guard Dallas Thomas is gone, but this will still be one of the best lines in the SEC. And if you've got to start an unproven quarterback with unproven receivers, a quality line can do you some enormous favors.
The defense was a weak unit last season, and while talent remains, the switch to a 4-3 and the level of production last season (which makes you wonder how good those recruits really were) cautions against expecting too much from that unit this season. In sum, Connelly lists our game with the Volunteers as one of the make-or-break games of their season:
Calling this schedule top-heavy doesn't really do it justice. Tennessee plays only two teams projected between ninth and 49th, with between four and five built-in losses and between three and five built-in wins (depending on your level of optimism). Those middle games -- South Carolina [19th], at Missouri [39th], Vanderbilt [49th] -- will probably dictate whether the Vols go bowling for the first time in three years.
Speaking of Mizzou, the Gamecocks follow their trip to Tennessee with a visit to Other Columbia. Missouri picked a bad year to suffer injuries and regression to their arc under Pinkel, and the SEC schedule exposed those weaknesses ruthlessly. One of the areas the Tigers fell off furthest was offensive line, partially because of injuries:
Mizzou's line regressed an incredible amount in 2012, from second in Adj. Line Yards to almost 100th. The fall was so steep that you really can't blame injuries for all of it; the same, actually, goes for a 2012 offense that plummeted overall from 24th to 85th in Off. F/+. Almost no team outside of Alabama can withstand that many personnel issues without a decent drop-off, but 60 spots? While the national focus will be mostly on the quarterback battle -- Franklin held off Berkstresser and high school yardage king Maty Mauk this spring, but the fight continues in August -- the magnitude of the line's improvement will determine a good portion of Mizzou's 2013 fate.
They'll try to right the ship under new offensive coordinator Josh Henson.
The defense kept Missouri in quite a few games, but ultimately wore out as the season progressed. The fact that they lose Sheldon Richardson could portend trouble this year, as the defense will need to hold the line (41st nationally in F/+ last year) to allow the offense's improvement to register as team improvement, not just an offset for a weakening defense:
With only Gaines and maybe Ealy likely to perform at something close to an all-conference level, Mizzou's defensive success will be determined mostly by its ability to throw a lot of interesting youngsters against the wall and hope a few of them stick. Tackles like Lucas Vincent and Harold Brantley will need to show a general level of competence in Richardson's absence up front. Linebackers like Kentrell Brothers and Michael Scherer will perhaps need to make some plays. Cornerbacks (and spring stars) David Johnson, John Gibson, and Xavier Smith will need to combine their strong athleticism with some general technical competence.
A question that could be raised around the South Carolina program has been raised around Mississippi State - how good can you expect to be? Mullen has obviously improved State above where they were under his immediate predecessor (Croom), but would fans rather have newness (and an increased chance of failure) to consistent mediocrity?
The offense will be what it seems to be from State under Mullen - run-focused.
With a well-seasoned line (five players with starting experience, 95 career starts from a line that was Top 30 in both run blocking and pass protection) and a solid backfield -- one that might be deeper in 2013 if youngsters like Josh Robinson, Derrick Milton, or even fresh man Ashton Shumpert take enough of a leap to steal some of Perkins' carries -- the MSU run game should be stellar. But some young receivers will need to quickly establish a strong rapport with Russell to make sure that progression in the run game isn't met with equal regression in the passing game.
On the defensive side of the ball, the Bulldogs will need to improve if they hope to stop teams from successfully passing on them in 2013:
In part because of the awful pass rush, MSU's pass defense graded out in rather mediocre fashion in 2012 despite the presence of two stellar cornerbacks. Darius Slay and Johnthan Banks were both picked in the second round of the NFL Draft, but MSU ranked just 52nd in Passing S&P;+ (and 105th in Adj. Sack Rate).
Autry, Jones, etc., better improve the pass rush, because the secondary's going to need some help. Banks, Slay, and Corey Broomfield are gone, leaving behind some sophomores and juniors who didn't do much last year, along with a four-star redshirt freshman (Will Redmond) and an incoming JUCO transfer (Justin Cox). Jay Hughes is intriguing, and it's a good sign that Jamerson Love managed to defense three passes in minimal playing time, but this will be a green unit, one in need of a lot more help up front.
In sum, State's schedule is tough enough (Oklahoma State in non-conference, along with the SEC West gauntlet and us from the East) that getting to a bowl would be a successful season, but after their recent taste of semi-success, 6-6 may be seen as a step backward, despite the fact it could come with an improved team.
Florida's version of Murderball did quite well for the Gators last year, though they came up just short of the prize they sought - a trip to Atlanta - and responded to that misfortune by completely failing to show up in the Sugar Bowl versus Louisville. The Gators relied heavily on their defense. While the offense was not as bad as it appeared in conventional statistics, it certainly was not the strength of the team:
Florida finished 103rd in total offense last year, leading one to believe that the Gators were rather incompetent on that side of the ball. But that's not necessarily true. They had a plan, and it occasionally worked.
The Gators really could run the ball, especially in the second half of games, and both pace and opponent adjustments do quite a few favors for a Florida offense that ranked a healthy, if less-than-elite, 32nd in Off. F/+. The Gators were intentionally slow to the line of scrimmage and only passed if they had to (and even when they had to pass, they still ran quite a bit); they couldn't pass, but they were good enough at either building leads or staying within striking distance (Sugar Bowl aside) that they were able to take minimal risks and succeed.
This season, the Gators return a ton of talent all across the defense, but we shouldn't sell short the losses of Matt Elam, Josh Evans, and Jon Bostic. Florida still has the potential to put together an elite defense, but there should be at least some concern that the pieces won't come together as easily as they did last season:
Recruiting rankings matter. They do. But we still go overboard about them sometimes. A four- or five-star rating is no guarantee of success (just ask Andre Debose), but it is very difficult to look at the recruiting rankings of Florida's youngsters in the linebacking corps and secondary and not assume the Gators will be just fine in 2013 despite some key losses.
Overall, while the Gators keep showing up in pre-season magazines as set for 3rd in the SEC East, it should not come as a surprise if they, by season's end, return to Atlanta.
While it would not surprise me to learn that Bill plans to also preview our FCS games in 2013, at this point, we'll have to do what pretty much every preview does and assume that, given that Coastal Carolina is not in FBS, we will handle this game without issue.
Connelly recognizes a reality some Gamecock fans hate to face - Clemson is going to put a good team on the field in 2013.
The offense was stellar last season, and even put together a fine running game against the Gamecocks, but it might be overly reliant on Tajh Boyd and his ability to stay upright over the course of the season. And that's not a guarantee, given the pounding he takes:
It's easy to get starry-eyed about the Clemson offense. Tajh Boyd completes two-thirds of his passes while frequently throwing aggressively downfield. Sammy Watkins, when healthy, is one of the three or four best receivers in the country. The offensive line is big and deep. There are former four-star recruits littered throughout the skill position two-deep. Chad Morris, one of the most highly paid assistant coaches in the country, has proven worth the money.
But if there's a red flag here (other than the fact that Clemson lost both Andre Ellington and DeAndre Hopkins), it's this: Tajh Boyd is basically a permanent injury risk. Boyd averaged 12 carries per game last year and was sacked 31 times. He takes a sack once for every 14 pass attempts (hazards of being both a mobile quarterback who tries to buy time to find open receivers and a quarterback who looks downfield a lot and doesn't like to check down to running backs).
The Tigers also need to make up for the loss of Andre Ellington and Deandre Hopkins. One way they will not be able to do that is through the tight end position, where the Tigers have struggled with injuries this fall.
On the other side of the ball, the Tigers enter Year 2 under Brent Venables, and the defense showed steady improvement throughout the season, which could lead to improvement in 2013. While Connelly believes the Tigers defensive line should withstand the loss of Malliciah Goodman, the back seven still have to prove themselves:
To combat the spread offense, you almost have to have a good nickel formation, which was a problem for Clemson last year: The Tigers really seemed to only have about four trustworthy (and healthy) defensive backs. Three are now gone, and while sophomore safety Travis Blanks could at some point turn into something pretty special and corner Martin Jenkins returns after missing 2012, the depth here is not what it needs to be.
The same, really, could be said of a linebacking corps that features two former five-star recruits and two incoming four-etar freshmen but suffered quite a few breakdowns last year.
If former star recruits begin to act like it in 2013 -- if Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward can make some plays to offset the loss of weak side linebacker Jonathan Willard, and if one or two of the freshman DB trio of Mackensie Alexander (slowed by injury in fall camp), big Jayron Kearse (a potential Tony Jefferson type capable of oscillating between safety and third linebacker) and Jadar Johnson can crack the two-deep, then the Clemson defense's ceiling gets exponentially higher. But those are some hefty ifs.
While Connelly is overall optimistic about our neighbors to the northwest, I'd be remiss not to end this column with my favorite line of his entire series:
This team gets Georgia and Florida State at home, and aside from the secondary (a serious question mark), I like just about every unit. Eighth is really, really high, too high for me to cosign. But the upside is there, and the schedule is friendly (at least, until the season-ending trip to South Carolina that is all but guaranteed to end in pain).