In the spirit of blogger outreach, and in an effort to gain a different perspective, I exchanged a Q&A with Garnet & Black Attack, the South Carolina entry in the SBNation blogging continuum. You can read my answers here.
It’s been a long time coming, but South Carolina finally broke through and won the SEC East title for the first time last year. With so many great players returning, what does that mean for 2011? Is this finally the year for an SEC title?
The feeling is definitely that this is the most talented team that USC has ever had and that we have a fairly clear road back to Atlanta if we play to the best of our ability. Granted, once we get to Atlanta, we’ll likely have to take on either Alabama or LSU, both of which appeared to be better teams than USC heading into the season. However, if you get there, you have a chance, and we proved that on good days we can beat teams like that when we beat Alabama last year.
It has to be noted, though, that USC’s slightly shaky start has exposed some chinks in the armor. USC needs to shore up its secondary and passing game if it wants to compete at the highest level this year. The strengths we expected to see are all here: great running game led by Marcus Lattimore, great pass rush and fairly solid run defense led by a stout defensive front, and great receiver in Alshon Jeffery. However, the expected weaknesses at secondary, QB, and secondary receivers have been more glaring than expected, and that has some USC fans a bit worried.
As someone who follows an SEC team that plays a schedule full of college football titans every year, what do you see when you look at the Navy program?
On the one hand, Navy doesn’t have the kinds of athletes that SEC or even many larger-scale mid-major programs like Southern Miss. or East Carolina have. However, even if Navy isn’t typically able to gain commitments from elite prep athletes, its coaches have been very successful at finding players who work well in the Navy system, and the coaches have done a marvelous job preparing those players to excel in that system. I view what the last two coaching staffs have done at Navy as a truly exemplary job. That–and the unconventional offense that requires special preparation–makes Navy a much more dangerous opponent than most mid-major teams we play; this game has me as worried than any OOC opponent other than Clemson that we’ve played in recent years.
I watched the East Carolina-South Carolina game with quite a bit of interest, since Navy has both on the schedule. It was a completely different game once Stephen Garcia came in for the second half. Just how important is he to the Gamecocks’ offense?
He’s obviously very important. Despite the fact that he led a nice comeback against ECU, though, he needs to step up his game quite a bit right now. Although his running and ability to protect the ball have been strong so far, he’s struggled with accuracy. The reason it’s so important that he improve is that he’s the only piece of the offense that we’re unsure of right now. South Carolina has many of the pieces necessary to have an elite offense: Heisman-candidate tailback, All-American wide receiver, etc. We even appear to have a very solid offensive line this year; that used to be the missing link for Carolina. Now, we need to step up the passing game just another level or two to put the kind of offense on the field that we need to compete for the SEC Title. Garcia–as well as some of the secondary receivers–needs to step up to make that happen. He doesn’t have to be great, but he has to be better than he is right now. We’re hoping he calms down a bit this weekend in front of the home crowd, where he’s generally played better over the course of his career.
South Carolina fans should know a thing or two about SEC expansion, having joined with Arkansas in 1991. What do you think about Texas A&M? What would be the best result for South Carolina?
I’m a bit of a traditionalist (despite South Carolina not having a huge stake in SEC traditions), and I like the conference the way it is. That said, I also like the conference’s reputation for great football and its clout with the national media, and A&M will bolster both. On the other hand, although it’s been down for a couple of years, the SEC East has been a monster division historically, and if any other great teams–let’s say Auburn switches divisions–join the fold, that’ll be tough for a South Carolina program that seems to finally be having a modicum of success breaking through in the division. Preferably, Eastern Division expansion would include a good-but-not-great team, someone who bolsters the conference’s reputation but doesn’t add another Florida-like opponent to the mix of annual slug fests. And, of course, we really don’t want Clemson to join the conference; we’ve begun to become more competitive with them over the last few years, likely due to our SEC advantages, and we don’t want to even the playing field.