With three consecutive 11-2 seasons under his belt there is no doubt that coach Steve Spurrier has done wonders at South Carolina, turning a traditionally mediocre program into a respected national powerhouse. Pundits see the Gamecocks as a potential contender under the new 4-team playoff system, the media has predicted an SEC East division championship this season, and the coaches have placed USC in their pre-season Top 10. All of these are indicators that the perception of Gamecock football has come a long way.
Still, as tempting as it is to jump on the bandwagon and start celebrating the potential of this year’s team, long time Carolina fans are trained by brutal experience to be skeptical and “believe it when we see it” on the field. Fortunately the wait is usually a short one, as USC traditionally schedules Georgia early in the season, a game which usually serves as a barometer for the rest of the year.
While the period of anticipation will be even shorter this year with a legitimate Texas A&M as the season opener, many fans, myself included, are keeping our fingers crossed in “wait and see” mode and hoping for the best rather than predicting it.
Why the uncertainty? Obviously the transition at quarterback is a huge factor. Face it, it took a long time to accept Connor Shaw, the school’s most successful quarterback ever. How many times did you cringe and shout “throw the ball” in frustration as Shaw paused in the backfield? Of course, when the moment of panic arrived, Shaw tucked it and ran, picking up that first down without risking a turnover in the air. It was maddening, but the bottom line was success.
While it is a blessing that this year’s starter, Dylan Thompson, got lots of playing time as Shaw’s back-up, his bottom line is a bit more worrisome. When things go well Thompson gets rid of the ball quickly, a relief to us all as well as to coach Spurrier, who cited his own frustration at Shaw holding the ball many times. But what happens when the coverage is good and Thompson meets that moment of panic in the backfield? He floats it downfield, too often into the hands of a defender. Yes, Shaw was exceptional at avoiding interceptions, but if Thompson is even average we can expect to see a lot more USC turnovers at quarterback this season. Considering that four of Carolina’s wins last year were by a touchdown or less, this could make a significant impact on the team’s overall success.
This is not to say Thompson can’t improve and avoid this situation, but as of now he remains unproven despite his fairly extensive playing time. Of course, this is just one factor in the complex formula that is football, but a pivotal one indeed.
On the positive side coach Spurrier, known for telling it like it is when assessing his team, has a notably positive attitude about this year’s squad and its work ethic. He has lauded the intensity of the early practices and player conditioning and also noted that this season’s schedule structure – with no consecutive road games—is the most beneficial in years. If anything actually can soothe the anxiety of life-long Gamecock fans, it is this coach’s honest outlook being more positive than doubtful. Then again, he isn’t the one who has to prove himself, it’s his team that does. Let’s hope they don’t let him, or us, down.