|Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney :: Getty Images|
Steve Spurrier -- the coach best known for bringing the passing game back to the SEC with his Fun 'n' Gun attack at Florida in 1990 -- bragged like a proud papa this spring about the drive his South Carolina offense closed with last season in its Capital One Bowl win over Nebraska. Did the Gamecocks stretch the field vertically like all those great teams Spurrier coached? Did they close the drive with a fade pass that arced against the sky?
Not even close. The drive consisted of 13 plays. Twelve of those plays were runs. The possession devoured six minutes, 25 seconds of clock, and it ended with a three-yard Kenny Miles touchdown run. Spurrier loved every second.
Sure, Spurrier tried to import to South Carolina the offense that made him famous. But as his tenure progressed, he realized the SEC had caught up to the Fun 'n' Gun. In fact, the race to stop Spurrier's offense created many of the ferocious defenses that dominate the league. So instead of clinging to his offense and coaching himself into an early retirement, Spurrier adjusted. Now, the Gameocks rely on a steady running game -- with occasional, timely contributions through the air -- as well as on their disruptive defense. In short South Carolina plays like an elite SEC team.
Whether this is an elite group depends on how it handles expectations. After setting a school record for wins, the Gamecocks return enough talent to compete for the SEC title. And a team that can compete for the SEC title can compete for the national title. Defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles said the Gamecocks embrace those expectations, declaring that attitude part of "the New Carolina" concept that he gleaned from former Gamecock Melvin Ingram -- one of the team's cornerstones last season.
With defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor terrorizing opposing quarterbacks and tailback Marcus Lattimore returning from a knee injury to lead a zone-read-heavy offense, the team's upside may depend on quarterback Connor Shaw. It was Shaw's maturation that allowed Spurrier to make the necessary changes in the offense. "Play-calling is pretty easy," said Spurrier of his shift in philosophy. "You call what you think is going to work." If those plays work in 2012, the Gamecocks could wind up making some very loud national noise.
Can these Gamecocks get enough out of their passing attack against tough defenses to keep long drives alive?
.900 -- Winning percentage against the rest of the SEC East (9-1) over the past two seasons, including a perfect 5-0 in 2011.
DeVonte Holloman, SPUR, Sr. -- In 2011, Holloman was supposed to play Spur -- a hybrid linebacker-safety position -- but coaches moved him back to safety after two games. Now the 241-pounder has grown into the playmaking position, and his leadership skills will be critical.
Marcus Lattimore, RB, Jr. -- Lattimore tore a ligament in his left knee last season at Mississippi State but is on track for this year. The Gamecocks welcome back a star who averaged 4.9 yards a carry and scored 30 touchdowns in his first two seasons.
Connor Shaw, QB, Jr. -- Shaw's forte is big gains on designed quarterback runs, but that doesn't mean he can't throw. He completed 123 of 188 passes for 1,448 yards with 14 touchdowns and six picks, for a passer efficiency rating of 148.3.
Devin Taylor, DE, Sr. -- Playing alongside Melvin Ingram (now in the NFL) and Jadeveon Clowney might have made it tough to stand out last year, but it's hard to overshadow the 6-foot-8, 267-pound Taylor. In 2011 he had 8.5 tackles for loss -- six were sacks -- an interception, two fumble recoveries and six hurries.
Ace Sanders, WR, Jr. -- With 6-foot-3 deep threat Alshon Jeffery now with the Bears in the NFL, look for the Gamecocks to adjust their approach and rely heavily upon the 5-foot-8, 175-pound Sanders. They'll get the ball to him in space with shorter passes and the speedy, shifty playmaker will do the rest.
Shaq Roland, WR, Fr. -- For the fourth straight year the Gamecocks signed South Carolina's Mr. Football. The first three (cornerback Stephon Gilmore, Marcus Lattimore and Jadeveon Clowney) became stars as freshmen, so Roland arrives with huge expectations. As a senior at Lexington High, the 6-foot-1, 173-pounder scored 24 touchdowns. If he adds a few as a college freshman, the Gamecocks will be satisfied.
Georgia offensive tackle Cordy Glenn knocked the heralded South Carolina freshman defensive end off course and surged ahead to block a linebacker. The plan was for Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray to take the shotgun snap, fire off a screen pass and help the Bulldogs move closer to taking back the lead. That was the plan.
But by the time Murray caught the snap and took one step back, that heralded freshman was on top of him. After the bump from Glenn, Jadeveon Clowney had righted his path and covered the eight yards between the line of scrimmage and Murray faster than any 6-foot-6, 256-pounder should. Clowney grabbed the back of Murray's jersey and flung him backward toward the Bulldogs' end zone. As Murray flew, the ball squirted from his hand. South Carolina defensive end Melvin Ingram scooped it up and scored the touchdown that gave the Gamecocks the cushion they needed to win a game they had no business winning.
Clowney, playing just the second game of his college career, made sacking and stripping one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC look easy. Even more amazing, Clowney, the nation's top-ranked recruit in the class of 2011, didn't even have a full grasp of the Gamecocks' playbook.
"I didn't know much last season," Clowney said. "I was just tiptoeing out there not knowing what I was supposed to do."
After a full offseason, Clowney now better understands the concepts his coaches preach. He'll no longer need a veteran to help him line up and tell him where to attack. That means he'll play more often -- coach Steve Spurrier estimates Clowney's inexperience cost him about 30 snaps a game last season -- and he won't have to tiptoe anymore. As a sophomore Clowney should know enough to play at full-speed, a thought that might terrify every quarterback in the SEC. "When God made him," South Carolina defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles said, "He made a beast."
At South Pointe (S.C.) High, Clowney succeeded by being bigger and faster than everyone else. In the SEC he meets blockers much bigger and stronger than he is. He still runs faster than other linemen, but that gap has narrowed. For every time Clowney burst through the line for a sack or chased down a ballcarrier from behind last season, there were at least two times he got swallowed by a blocker because Clowney was out of position or used poor technique. Still, even without knowing the plays or the proper methods, and despite the limited snaps, Clowney's instincts and freakish physical attributes helped him rack up five forced fumbles, six hurries and eight sacks. Twelve of Clowney's 36 tackles resulted in a loss of yardage.
Defensive line coach Brad Lawing says Clowney's talent made it impractical to wait until Clowney was properly trained before unleashing him. "If you've got an exceptional player, to have him over there drinking Gatorade isn't very smart," Lawing said. "You get him on the field and have somebody help him through the series."
Lawing says Clowney still hasn't mastered the defense, but the sophomore has grown comfortable grabbing the grease pen in the defensive line meeting room and diagramming plays. "The playbook was harder than I expected," he said. "But now it's pretty easy." Even the most exquisitely designed sack machines get better with some internal tinkering, and this season Clowney 2.0 could arrive at a speed few blockers, or quarterbacks, can handle. As Lawing said, "Clowney can be as good a player as he wants to be."
SI: A few years ago you said you might coach for five more years. At this point, how many more years do you think you'll coach?
SS: I said three or four the other day. I'm coming down one or two. But we've recruited well. And I've got a super bunch of assistant coaches. They can go out and recruit kids, get them committed and signed. I don't have to beat the bushes like some younger coaches have to.
SI: You've said football players should get a stipend in addition to their scholarships. Why?
SS: Us coaches are making millions. But the players get the same scholarship they got 25 years ago. They deserve a small piece of the enormous college football pie.
SI: How did it feel to set a school record with 11 wins last season?
SS: We always set our goals to win eight, then nine, then 10. We didn't even have 11 on the books. That was unheard of.
SI: How is coaching at South Carolina different than at a traditional SEC power?
SS: One reason I love being at South Carolina is that we have opportunities to achieve things for the first time. Some people would rather be at a place where you can win it all every year. Schools like Alabama, LSU and Florida. Once something has already been accomplished, it's neat to do it again, but it's not the first time ever. I look forward to doing some more first-time-ever things at South Carolina.
This team preview originally appeared in Sports Illustrated Presents' SEC Preview.