BY RYAN BLACK | firstname.lastname@example.org
It’s Day 7 of our preseason power rankings poll among teams in the SEC, which end Saturday as we unveil the two teams at the top of the league (in our opinion) entering the fall . The format, as has been the case all week, involves a “best-case/worst-case” scenario for each team, taking our cues from former War Eagle Extra beat writer Andy Bitter’s piece from three years ago.
With 12 teams down, we are left with the last two. Which two teams are they?
Let’s answer that question now. (And please, as Bitter said in his preseason power rankings article from 2010, remember all scenarios “are meant to be hyperbolic.) …
2. SOUTH CAROLINA
Some may be surprised to see South Carolina rank above both Georgia and Texas A&M. Yes, I know the Gamecocks lost their leading rusher (Marcus Lattimore), receiver (Ace Sanders) and top four tacklers (Shaq Wilson, D.J. Swearinger, Reginald Bowens and DeVonte Holloman) from 2012.
On the other hand, they return the best defensive player in college football, not to mention a potential Heisman Trophy finalist, in defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. All-purpose threat Bruce Ellington returns, too. Some people may question South Carolina’s use of a two-quarterback system, using both senior Connor Shaw and junior Dylan Thompson in tandem with each other — and will occasionally be on the field at the same time, as Shaw has seen time at both running back and receiver in 7-on-7 workouts this summer, which he expects to continue this fall. Remember, however, that this is a squad that has won 11 games in each of the past two seasons.
The most important returnee for South Carolina is at the top, as Steve Spurrier enters his ninth season as head coach. Not that there should be any reason to doubt his coaching ability at this point, but keep these four facts in mind just in case: 1. He’s the winningest coach in Florida’s history (122 victories); 2. He’s the winningest coach in South Carolina history (66 victories); 3. In being the winningest coach at two different SEC schools, he joins Bear Bryant as the only other person to accomplish the feat. Bryant did so at Kentucky and Alabama. 4. Incredibly, Spurrier won an ACC title. At Duke. At Duke. At Duke. At. Duke. (Yes, it needs to be repeated multiple times.) No, the conference championship wasn’t on the hardwood, either. Spurrier led the Blue Devils to the ACC title in 1989.
- Best-case scenario: South Carolina does what once would have been considered unthinkable for a team that has won only one conference championship (the ACC crown in 1969) in its history: It wins the national title. Even more impressively, the Gamecocks do so without losing a single game. They roll over North Carolina in Week 1 before Spurrier torments Georgia once more, beating the Bulldogs for the fourth straight year. South Carolina isn’t tested again until the regular season finale, when arch-rival Clemson pushes them to the brink. But Clowney pressures quarterback Tajh Boyd into throwing an off-target pass on the Tigers’ final drive, and the Gamecocks hold on for a 28-24 victory. In the SEC Championship Game, the nation gets a juicy game-within-the-game, as Clowney gets the chance to terrorize Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel. In a classic conference title tilt, both Clowney and Manziel play their best football at the most important time. Clowney sacks Manziel four times and forces a fumble from Aggies running back Brandon Williams. Clowney and Manziel once again take center stage on the game’s deciding play. With Texas A&M trailing 24-20 with two minutes to play and the ball at South Carolina’s 30-yard line, the Aggies pick up a first down to get to the 18. But with no timeouts remaining, the Aggies waste more clock than they should, leading to a 4th-and-3 at the Gamecocks’ 11-yard line. Manziel drops back and looks for an open receiver to no avail. Reverting to instincts, Manziel takes off toward the first down marker. But Clowney is able to shed his blocker and make a shoe-string tackle to stunt the Aggies and seal the victory for the Gamecocks. Clowney becomes the first “pure” defensive player — referring to someone who didn’t contribute on offense or special teams, a la Charles Woodson — to win the Heisman, because doggone it, voters decided the absurdly talented defensive end was too good not to be awarded the bronze trophy. In the national title game, Clowney leads the way in South Carolina’s airtight defensive performance against the Ohio State Buckeyes, ending the Big Ten representative’s 23-game win streak in the process. Clowney does what everyone expects him to do by turning pro, but no one faults him. He’s done everything he could do at the college level, and now it’s onward and upward. Spurrier says he’ll stick around for as long as he can coach — and still play a lot of golf during his downtime. As if things weren’t good enough for South Carolina, Clemson lays an egg after being tabbed the odds-on favorite to win the ACC, finishing with an 8-5 mark following a loss in the Belk Bowl. Spurrier is equally pleased Georgia doesn’t play up the lofty preseason hype as the media’s pick to win the Eastern Divison for the third straight year, as the Bulldogs also finish 8-5. And with the “Ol’ Ball Coach” arriving at SEC Media Days 2014 as the reigning national champion, reporters anticipate Spurrier putting on the greatest performance in the event’s history.
- Worst-case scenario: Heading into the most anticipated season in Gamecocks’ history, a team from the “other” Carolina spoils the party. In the season opener, the Gamecocks constantly misfire against the Tar Heels, who gladly take advantage of their opponent’s poor play and pull a stunning upset in Week 1. Instead of rallying back one week later, South Carolina falls to 0-2 when Georgia beats it for the first time since 2009. Already down on themselves, the Gamecocks sink to 0-3 when Vanderbilt comes into Williams-Brice Stadium and leave on top. Spurrier, caught flat-footed with his two-quarterback system an utter failure through three games, turns to redshirt freshman Brendan Nosovitch, who passed for over 13,000 yards during his prep career in Pennsylvania. South Carolina immediately responds, tearing off an eight-game win streak prior to facing arch-rival Clemson. The Tigers bring the winning streak to a halt, as Boyd and Clemson’s offense prove to be too much for the Gamecocks. An 8-1 finish after an 0-3 start isn’t bad, but it’s far from what anyone associated with South Carolina’s program — much less its fans — hoped 2013 would be. South Carolina says all the right things about being “happy to be in the postseason” and excited to “get the chance to play one more game.” The Gamecocks’ play says otherwise, as they fall to 0-3 against the ACC in 2013, losing to Georgia Tech 38-20 in the Music City Bowl. Clowney, not surprisingly, turns pro. Spurrier grimaces for a brief moment before his attention turns to hitting the links. And South Carolina fans let out a deep sigh as Clemson wins the Orange Bowl while Georgia wins the national championship.
What is there to say about Alabama that hasn’t already been said? The Crimson Tide are the two-time defending national championships, and have won it all three of the past four years. They annually sign one of the top recruiting classes in college football, they own a rabid fan base, and have the man regarded as the top coach in the sport leading them on to the field each week.
Yeah, Alabama lost a tremendous amount of production to the NFL, particularly on the offensive line, where All-American performers departed. But when has a mass exodus of talent slowed down Alabama before, especially during Saban’s tenure? Even after losing those three linemen (D.J. Fluker, Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack) and its leading rusher in BCS National Championship Game Offensive MVP Eddie Lacy, Alabama’s offense will be fine with AJ McCarron at the controls. The signal-caller with a 25-2 record will have a embarrassingly deep running back unit at his disposal and one of the top receivers in the country in Amari Cooper.
Oh, and seven starters are back from a defense that was the nation’s best in total defense and scoring defense.
- Best-case scenario: Elation for Alabama fans, and groans from the rest of the country. The Crimson Tide go undefeated and win their unprecedented third straight national championship. Alabama puts on a clinic in nearly every game it plays, tossing aside challengers at every opportunity. The Crimson Tide shut down Johnny Manziel in Game 2 en route to a 38-10 victory, and the only team to stay within single digits during the regular season is LSU, which loses to the Crimson Tide 24-20. In the SEC Championship Game, it’s the same story for the second year in a row. Georgia puts up a fight, but it isn’t enough to knock Alabama off its perch at the top of the mountain in the SEC, as the Crimson Tide win 34-24. After getting to the national championship game once more, Alabama makes sure not to let an opportunity to make history fall by the wayside. The Crimson Tide wallop fellow undefeated Ohio State 41-10, cementing Alabama as not only one of the top dynasties in the annals of college football, but in all of sports. Saban refuses to crack a smile in his post-championship game interview, saying there was “work to be done” in Tuscaloosa and that he could “celebrate this accomplishment when I’m dead.” The Crimson Tide once again lose a bumper crop of players to the pros, but it just means the next batch of high draft picks get their opportunity to shine in 2014, as they gear up to make it four national titles in a row. And who wants to bet against them?
- Worst-case scenario: Calamity for Crimson Tide supporters, joy from everyone who doesn’t own a Tuscaloosa-area ZIP code. Alabama doesn’t have a terrible season by any means — most schools would sign up for a 10-3 season any day — but not by its impossibly-high standards. Texas A&M topples Alabama for the second year in a row in Game 2, coming out on top 31-28. The Crimson Tide lose only one other regular season game, when they are caught in another titantic tussle with LSU. The Tigers return the favor from the previous season, capturing a victory on the opponent’s home field. Alabama wins its final three regular season games (Mississippi State, Chattanooga and Auburn), though the Iron Bowl against the Tigers is a much tougher tilt than many expected. The Tigers push the Crimson Tide until late in the fourth quarter, losing 34-24. Alabama makes it to the Capital One Bowl, but with its dreams of winning a third straight national title long since squelched, the Crimson Tide find it hard to get up for a game against Wisconsin. The Badgers take advantage, beating the Crimson Tide 24-14. Saban is blunt during his postgame interview, alluding to the “work that must be done” back in Tuscaloosa to avert a similar season in 2014. Every underclassman eligible to declare for the NFL Draft does so, and much to Alabama fans’ chagrin, Auburn finishes with only one less victory (nine) in a remarkable first year for coach Gus Malzahn.