COLUMBIA — When you wake up this time next week, most college football teams will still be waiting.
The first Saturday of the season will remain one long, torturous work day away.
That is, unless you’re a South Carolina fan. The Gamecocks play on the first night of the season, Thursday, in the highest-profile game that evening, at Southeastern Conference East Division opponent Vanderbilt.
The result could go a long way in determining whether the Gamecocks can win the East and reach the SEC championship game, as they did in 2010. It absolutely will determine what kind of weekend USC fans await when they wake up this time next week – a relaxing one spent watching other games or a frustrating one agonizing over what went wrong in the opener.
And the result of USC-Vanderbilt, in which USC is favored, will depend largely on how well the Gamecocks answered the five big questions we posed three weeks ago today, when preseason practices began.
The Gamecocks were able to answer some of them more definitively than others over the past three weeks, and here’s how the results shaped up:
Who is the most reliable outside receiver?
As it turned out, Ace Sanders. He is 5-foot-8, so he is not nearly in the mold of Alshon Jeffery. But he is USC’s only proven receiver and is playing one of the two outside spots.
In terms of a big-bodied outside receiver, 6-foot-5 senior D.L. Moore emerged as the No. 1 guy at the other outside spot. The slot receiver is 5-foot-9 Bruce Ellington, with 5-foot-9 Damiere Byrd behind him.
It’s worth emphasizing that none of these receivers are likely to put up numbers like Jeffery did in 2010, when he had 88 catches for 1,517 yards. But Sanders will boost his own numbers (29 catches, 383 yards last year). Moore will, too, simply by playing more. He had eight catches for 52 yards last year.
Where will Brandon Shell play?
The redshirt freshman from Goose Creek, and the second-highest rated recruit in USC’s Class of 2011, entered the preseason as the No. 1 left tackle. He remains there, with Mike Matulis as the starting right tackle – the role he occupied at the end of last season. Matulis beat Cody Gibson for the right tackle job.
Offensive line coach Shawn Elliott said he has no hang-ups about Shell’s ability. He just needs to play, and it seems Elliott is just as excited as Shell about him truly getting on the field for the first time, save for four snaps against East Carolina in last year’s opener, before he hurt his shoulder and redshirted.
Can the secondary deliver? If this group measures up to last year’s, which ranked second nationally in passing yards allowed per game, it will do so with a vastly different cast, at least at the start. Cornerback Akeem Auguste is out for a month with a thigh injury, so USC will have two truly new starters at corner – Victor Hampton and Ahmad Christian or Jimmy Legree, who are competing to replace Auguste.
A proven, dominant corner like Stephon Gilmore isn’t walking through that door. But can these defensive backs, as a group, maintain last year’s lofty standards? This question will linger until next Thursday, when Vanderbilt quarterback Jordan Rodgers tests the Gamecocks.
Who’s the kicker? Well, we know the punter is transfer Tyler Hull. Kicker Adam Yates earned a scholarship by hitting a field goal in a preseason scrimmage, with the entire team crowded around him, yelling. He seems to be ahead of Landon Ard and true freshman Nick St. Germain. The final depth chart for Vanderbilt won’t be out until Monday, but bet on Yates getting the job. None of the three are tested under game pressure – aside, sort of, from Yates’ kick for the scholarship.
Can the defensive ends be as dominant?
Considering New York Jets coach Rex Ryan thinks Jadeveon Clowney would’ve been a first-round NFL draft pick if he came out after last year, when he was a true freshman, the end group of Clowney and returning starter Devin Taylor shouldn’t slip too much, if at all, with the departure of first-round pick Melvin Ingram. Taylor is a projected early second-round pick.
Both he and Clowney should have big years, especially in new defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward’s more aggressive, blitz-focused plan.