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The state of Palmetto State college pigskin

jeff zell
jeff zell

I'm in mourning this week.

Not because of my personal vendetta against Old Man Winter who, once again, claims victory over my cold-blooded self. But it's because the countdown is on for college football -- the 2011 variety.

And it's a long ways off.

But what people like me in the media do best (or so we say) is look toward the future. Here's a 2011 preview of the two FBS (formerly Division I) college football teams in South Carolina.

Gamecocks' Glass Half-Full

To be honest, I didn't think the pride of the Palmetto State would turn Gamecock garnet and black so quickly. The tide turned with the introduction of Marcus Lattimore to the national scene.

Lattimore rushed the ball 249 times for 1,197 yards and scored 19 total touchdowns. Those are numbers you think a veteran college tailback would put up, not a guy who's more than a year away from being legally allowed to hit up Croc Rocks.

You probably wouldn't find Lattimore there anyway. The kid has displayed wisdom beyond his years, so far. He's grounded, humble but still confident -- and it shows on the field. I haven't seen a more dominant freshman running back since Adrian Peterson when he was at Oklahoma. And he's helped out a few fantasy football teams in his career.

Establishing a run game instantly boosts the rest of the offense. All of a sudden Alshon Jeffery turns into a Biletnikoff Award (best wide receiver in country) finalist and the dynamic duo became the first South Carolina wide receiver/running back combo to catch and run for 1,000 yards apiece. Throw in a quarterback with nearly 30 starts in his college career with three of five offensive linemen returning; it's a recipe for a strong season.

The offense's wild card will be the river boat gambler in Coach Steve Spurrier. Spurrier and QB Stephen Garcia don't sip Shirley Temples in the off-season together. It's almost the anti-Urban Meyer/Tim Tebow prodigal father-son relationship thing going in Columbia. Don't be surprised if Spurrier gets a hankerin' for Connor Shaw, who got playing time in meaningful minutes early in the season.

As for the defense, seven starters return including the entire secondary. Yeah, those defensive backs did rank 97th in the country giving up 23 passing touchdowns this season, but those guys all have game film to dissect in the offseason.

The South Carolina schedule isn't a cakewalk to start. Spurrier and company play East Carolina in a neutral site and then open SEC play at Georgia the following week. No A.J. Green, but the Bulldogs' freshman QB Aaron Murray will be a year older and even tougher to beat at home.

The stretch of three straight road games in late October-early November facing Mississippi State, Tennessee and Arkansas will determine the season.

Tigers Retooling

Clemson brass made it clear to football coach Dabo Swinney this offseason -- six wins will eventually get you a permanent trip to the beach. Instead of Swinney getting the cut, he uses offensive coordinator Billy Napier as his scapegoat, firing him just days after a disappointing Meineke Car Care Bowl loss to South Florida.

I know, who else do you pin the 84th ranked offense in the country on?

I pin it on team chemistry and the unit not having a leader.

Swinney, Napier, and the Tigers suffered from a team that couldn't find an offensive identity. Creating an identity is usually the quarterback. Problem with the 2010 season -- the inherent starter informed his teammates that this season would be his last and he would be signing a baseball contract and become an instant millionaire.

That's fine and dandy -- but Swinney pawned Kyle Parker as his quarterback of the future. Swinney didn't have an even comparable second option, as Tajh Boyd showed that the college speed was just too much for him in the rare instances he got in this season.

So call this season an outlier because of the Kyle Parker factor; how will 2011 be different? While I predict Steve Spurrier will be a riverboat gambler with his quarterback, I think Swinney has already rolled the dice with his offensive coordinator choice.

Little-known Chad Morris from Tulsa got the job. He earned the job with the Golden Hurricanes because of a decade of success at the high school level in Texas. That carried over to the Tulsa offense that ranked fifth in the country averaging more than 500-yards per game. Yes, the numbers don't lie, but the longevity might.

Now that schools have a year of film on the so called "Chad Morris Offense," maybe it will be a little easier to stop. But Swinney, knowing his days are numbered unless he gets close to 10 wins, is willing to roll the dice on the "it" offensive guy.

Clemson's defense loses four guys who started in the bowl loss to USF. But those four were the play-maker guys on defense. Da'Quan Bowers is the most decorated defensive lineman in Clemson history; he and Jarvis Jenkins will be playing on Sunday's come the fall. Two of the four starters in the secondary are out of eligibility, meaning the defensive unit has plenty to accomplish in spring drills.

Now thinking positive about Clemson football for 2011, the recruiting class is one of the best in the nation. It only got stronger last weekend with Marlboro County's Lateek Townsend choosing the Tigers over LSU and South Carolina. With other top recruits likely to sign letters of intent to play at Death Valley, Swinney could declare signing day the seventh victory of the 2010 season.

And if you still want to think glass-half-full; Clemson still plays in the ACC.