Championships, jobs and reputations are at stake at every one of our Big Four programs. We could have most of our answers before the end of September.
Georgia’s plate will be set with consecutive games to start against Boise State and South Carolina.
South Carolina’s championship capability will be measured quickly in Athens, Ga., and with a home rematch against defending national champion Auburn on Oct. 1.
Clemson’s viability as a national player and conference contender will be established by back-to-back home tests against Auburn and Florida State before traveling to its first road game at Virginia Tech.
It won’t take long for the howling aggravation or the bowling aspirations to take shape. The only team that really doesn’t give us any reason to take notice until October is Georgia Tech, which could be 4-0 by then without breaking much of a sweat or restoring Paul Johnson’s luster.
Since opinions are free, here’s one stab at what might be in store for the Big Four in 2011.
SOUTH CAROLINA: 11-1
For the first time in history, the reality might actually mesh with the expectations of Gamecock nation. The grandeur no longer seems delusional at Williams-Brice Stadium.
The Gamecocks are poised to repeat as SEC East champs and this time should be competitive in the conference championship game. A BCS bowl berth and perhaps a national title quest are reasonable prospects.
While humbling setbacks in the postseason games at the Georgia Dome against Auburn and Florida State tempered the jubilation of 2010’s breakthrough season, those losses should fuel the hunger of a roster stacked with stars.
Marcus Lattimore became an instant game-changing factor at running back and Alshon Jeffery is now the SEC’s most elite game-breaking receiver. Assuming quarterback Stephen Garcia doesn’t do something stupid to warrant a sixth suspension that might actually make him miss a game, the offense should roll.
The defense, however, is what makes the Gamecocks championship material. The defensive front is loaded with guys like Devin Taylor, Travian Robertson and Melvin Ingram – and that’s before adding the nation’s most sought recruit Jadaveon Clowney to the mix. All-conference cornerback Stephon Gilmore should excel even more with opposing QBs under constant pressure.
Some have predicted the Gamecocks to run the table, but this is the SEC and South Carolina after all. One of the tough road tests at Mississippi State or Arkansas should trip them up.
Assuming all the oxygen doesn’t get sucked out of the air if Georgia is unable to win at least one of the first two games against opponents harboring national title hopes, this should be a big rebound year for Mark Richt and the Bulldogs.
Another nice recruiting class and perceived strength and conditioning improvements have quieted the masses growing weary of being ordinary (or worse), but only results will matter in the end.
Aaron Murray is the best quarterback in the league (Garcia isn’t even close), but the weapons around him aren’t as proven. Depth is a big issue everywhere on offense, but especially at tailback where freshman Isaiah Crowell needs to steps in like Lattimore did for the Gamecocks last year. If everybody stays healthy, the offense should be fine.
The biggest reason for optimism is the defense, which let down at key moments too often in a season with so many losses of a touchdown or less. Kwame Geathers and Jonathan Jenkins will anchor the nose of the 3-4 defense and Southern California transfer Jarvis Jones at linebacker are among the playmakers who have energized a defense that hasn’t been itself for a few years.
With veteran specialists and plenty of talent on the roster, the Bulldogs could run the table even if they stumble at the gruelling start. The toughest games are between the hedges and the secondary motivation to keep Richt around will win out in the end.
After the guillotine was brought out and displayed at the end of last season, Dabo Swinney has had a pretty tremendous off-season. Another top-10 recruiting class filled with marquee talent has calmed the calls for his head.
Perhaps the most important acquisition, however, wasn’t a player but an offensive coordinator. Chad Morris comes to Clemson from Tulsa and brings with him an offensive system that compiled 505 yards and 41 points per game last year for the Golden Hurricane. For an offensively underachieving program like the Tigers, that’s encouraging.
However, Morris will have to work with raw quarterback Tajh Boyd, another in the line of promising players at a position that tends to disappoint the high expectations of the Tiger faithful. He’ll have weapons Andre Ellington and DeAndre Hopkins to work with, so the upside is high.
While Clemson’s stout defense lost superstar end Da’Quan Bowers, the infusion of stub linebackers Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward ought to continue limiting the opposition.
The biggest issue for Clemson, however, is the schedule. Those early games against Auburn and Florida State, road tests at Virginia Tech, Maryland, Georgia Tech and N.C. State and the finale against South Carolina are daunting. With a recent history of disappointment, the safe bet is the Tigers would be lucky to win four of those seven games. My bet is they win two and a new coach takes the reins in 2012.
GEORGIA TECH: 6-6
Last year’s 6-7 campaign was only the second losing mark in 14 years as a head coach for Paul Johnson. Going back-to-back would be a tough setback for the program and a possibility if the Jackets eke into a 15th consecutive bowl game.
The key, as usual, will ride on quarterbacks running Johnson’s triple option. Tevin Washington, who started the final four games last season, will get the nod but might share the role with freshmen backups Synjyn Days and Vad Lee. While they might have the coolest set of names for any QB corps, how cool they’ll be under pressure is to be determined.
Considering Washington only completed 41 percent of his passes last year, a new rushing star will need to emerge to try to sustain the streak of four consecutive 1,300-yard rushers. One of the candidates is yet another quarterback, David Sims, who made the position switch and is challenging for the starting job.
The Jackets are certain to gain plenty of yards rushing, but a young defense has a lot to prove. Johnson’s program has surprised everyone before, but 2011 shows all the signs of being modest at best. Not a great statement in his fourth season at the helm.