Nobody was really surprised when senior quarterback Stephen Garcia finally was kicked off the squad in October. What was surprising was that Garcia had been demoted to backup status in favor of sophomore Connor Shaw. Put away any expectations that Shaw is another Danny Wuerffel; he's a dual threat quarterback who's had double-digit carries in each game since October. He's rushed 116 times for 483 yards and seven touchdowns this season, including a 107 yard performance to close out the season against Clemson. Spurrier's "fun-and-gun" is history; in fact, the Gamecocks look more like 2011 Nebraska than 1995 Florida on offense. It's a run-first offense with the option in the mix, and that's caused major problems for the Blackshirts all season.
Shaw is also a decent passer as well, completing over 65% of his passes this season for 1,218 yards and 12 touchdowns with only six interceptions in 171 attempts. Shaw's backups haven't played much this season; sophomore Andrew Clifford and freshman Dylan Thompson are each 2 for 2 passing this season, and have a combined four rushing attempts.
Junior Alson Jeffrey was an all-American last season, catching 88 passes for 1,517 yards and nine touchdowns last season. This season, Jeffrey has "only" caught 45 passes for 614 yards and seven touchdowns. Jeffrey's still considered to be headed to the NFL after this season, and is projected to be a first round draft pick. Jeffrey broke a bone in his left hand in the Clemson game, but is still expected to play in the Capital One Bowl. He's been adept at making one-handed catches, which could become even more important now. Sophomore Ace Sanders caught 26 passes for 338 yards, which is second on the team this season. He's also the Gamecocks leading punt returner. A 68 yard punt return in the season opener skewed his statistics; he's averaged only five yards a return since.
The South Carolina offensive line has had some issues with pass protection since senior left tackle Kyle Nunn's season ended after just four games due to blood clots in his leg. With Nunn on the field, opposing defenses had four sacks in those four games; since then, 22 sacks in eight games. The lack of pass protection has been a key reason why the Gamecocks haven't been able to get the ball to Jeffrey more this season. Last week, Spurrier indicated that Nunn might be able to play in the bowl game, which would be a huge boost to the Gamecocks offensive line.
South Carolina's strength in the latter parts of the season has been defense. The Gamecocks rank fourth nationally in total defense at 269 yards per game, and thirteenth in scoring defense with 18.83 points per game. Those statistics are even more impressive when you consider that the Gamecocks weren't very good in the first three games. They gave up 37 points to East Carolina, 42 to Georgia, and 21 to Navy. After that, only Arkansas scored more than 20 points against the Gamecocks, with Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and Tennessee being limited to just a field goal.
It all starts up front for the Gamecocks with defensive ends Melvin Ingram and Jadeveon Clowney. Ingram, a senior, earned all-American honors with 13 tackles for loss, two interceptions, and fumble recovery. He scored three touchdowns this season, including a 68 yard touchdown run on a fake punt against Georgia. Clowney, a true freshman all-American, only started one game, but tallied 10 tackles for loss and forced five fumbles. The combination of senior Travian Robertson and freshman Kelcy Quarles has been imposing on the interior. With this defensive line, the Husker offensive line has their work cut out for them. If there is a sign of optimism, the Gamecocks only rank 44th in the nation in rush defense, giving up 136 yards a game. It's in pass defense where the Gamecocks really shine, ranking second in pass defense and pass efficiency defense.
The Gamecocks base defense is a 4-2-5, and linebackers Rodney Paulk and Shaq Wilson rank third and fourth on the team with 52 and 50 tackles this season respectively. The secondary is led by second team all-American Antonio Allen, who led the Gamecocks with 81 tackles (8.5 for a loss). He also forced four fumbles and intercepted three passes this season. Safety D.J. Swearinger added 73 tackles, while cornerback C.C. Whitlock added three interceptions.
Last week, assistant head coach for defense Ellis Johnson left the Gamecocks to take over as the head coach of Southern Miss. Taking over the defensive game planning will be defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. Don't expect much of a change in philosophy from the Gamecocks on defense.
Looking over South Carolina, it'll be important to see how Nebraska's perimeter run game can do against South Carolina. If Ben Cotton is ready to play, that's a huge boost that might be Nebraska's key to victory. And a victory over South Carolina would make an important statement for both the Huskers and the Big Ten, which had a horrible bowl season last year.