Scott Michaux

Sports columnist for The Augusta Chronicle. | ScottMichaux.com

A few key players can make difference for local schools

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The first step to bringing 2012 conference or BCS titles to the states Georgia or South Carolina might be only three days away.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has lost out on a few key recruits, who have signed with Georgia and South Carolina.  FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
FILE/ASSOCIATED PRESS
Clemson coach Dabo Swinney has lost out on a few key recruits, who have signed with Georgia and South Carolina.

While many folks in the South consider National Signing Day to be a religious holiday, the fascination has always seemed a little unhealthy with every Tweet, text message, trip to church or school visit causing enthralled fans to hyperventilate.

Perhaps the only thing more worthless than college football rankings are college football recruiting rankings. There is no telling how any one particular teenage kid is going to develop with the speed, strength and pressures of the collegiate environment. And only a few might be capable of making an immediate impact.

That said, the stakes seem higher than ever around here with Georgia, South Carolina and Clemson perched so close to championship caliber. The right guy in the right place might make all the difference with the stroke of a pen on Wednesday.

All three programs were championship caliber already in 2011 and have the core elements returning to make deep runs again in 2012. But each had flaws that prevented them from competing consistently at the level of perennial powers Louisiana State University or Alabama.

It’s not a gap that a few good young men at the right positions can’t help close. Depending on which recruiting analysts you value most, the Bulldogs, Gamecocks and Tigers are killing it again on the recruiting trails. Rivals.com ranks Clemson’s promised class eighth in the nation. Scout.com says the same of South Carolina’s. ESPN.com ranks Georgia’s fifth and Clemson’s sixth.

A year after signing an elite class that dubbed itself the “Dream Team” and helped Georgia get back to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, the Bulldogs are trying to back it up with another that will fulfill its mission. A couple of supposed “can’t miss” commitments – running back Keith Marshall and offensive lineman John Theus – have already taken to calling this class the “Ring Team.” If Georgia flips some other marquee commitments or gets the signature of Lowndes star linebacker Josh Harvey-Clemons on Wednesday, it could get even better.

Marshall is the “ring” leader so far in a commitment class more noted for high-end quality than quantity. The Raleigh, N.C., speedstar is rated the first or second-best in the nation by every scout and brought with him Tarboro, N.C., running back Todd Gurley, rated No. 5 by Rivals.com. The two of them are expected to either compliment or displace incumbent Isaiah Crowell, the crown jewel in last year’s class who was both promising and frustrating in his freshman year.

With an established quarterback, blossoming receiving corps, excellent defense and favorable schedule, the Bulldogs might just tip the scales to BCS-title worthy with a consistently lethal rushing attack. Marshall, Gurley and Theus could just be the pieces that take Georgia to the next level.

But defending the SEC East won’t be any less difficult than catching up with the West. South Carolina’s greatest addition, of course, will be the healthy return of proven running back Marcus Lattimore. While the Gamecocks defense remains stout, it’s the offense that requires attention to make them more competitive with the SEC’s elite.

The star of the Gamecocks’ commitment haul so far is wide receiver Shaq Roland, who could help fill the void left by Alshon Jeffery’s early defection to the pros. Roland once again is the top in-state prospect, extending the Gamecocks’ retention streak of “Mr. Football” winners to four in a row.

South Carolina also snagged running back Mike Davis, of Stephensen in Georgia, the brother of former Clemson star James Davis. It was another big loss at running back for the Tigers, who were in the hunt for both Marshall and Gurley as well. But this one stung, especially when James Davis had some harsh things to say about Dabo Swinney over the late cancellation of a school visit.

Clemson’s needs were obvious to everyone in the second half of 2011’s ACC championship season. For all of its offensive explosiveness under new offensive coordinator Chad Morris, the Tigers were a defensive meltdown waiting to happen.

It was bad enough that the weakness was grossly exposed in a third consecutive loss to the Gamecocks, but it hit a humiliating low in the Orange Bowl. The Tigers yielded 70 points – the most in bowl history – to West Virginia and some Mountaineers claimed Clemson’s players were actually pleading for mercy.

The fallout was the firing of defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and the hiring of Brent Venables from Oklahoma, who Swinney hopes can do for his defense what Morris did for the offense.

Clemson seems to be addressing its biggest needs on that side of the ball in recruiting with the bulk of its highest rated commits. The best pickup might be defensive tackle Carlos Watkins, which Scout.com rates eighth in the nation at his position. On a recent recruiting visit, Venables told Watkins to “be ready” to play in the fall. Perhaps he can be the kind of instant defensive spark that Sammy Watkins was to the offense last season.

The fact is, nobody really knows how any of these recruits will pan out or which unknowns might blossom into stars. But it takes talent to achieve goals, and in the next 11 months we’ll find out the real value of Wednesday’s signees.


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