Is South Carolina primed to win the SEC East?

With the news that head coach Steve Spurrier will assume all of the play-calling duties for South Carolina next season, are the Gamecocks positioned to win the SEC East for the first time in his tenure?

The team concluded spring practice on Wednesday and will now get ready for the annual Garnet & Black Game on Saturday afternoon where Spurrier will get his first chance to exclusively call the plays in 2010 — despite saying that his whole offensive staff would still be involved in game planning each week.

Nonetheless, Gamecocks fans are certainly excited that one of the best play-callers in SEC history will be running the whole show — complete with visor tossing and all.

Entering his sixth season in Columbia, S.C., Spurrier has yet to win a division title and advance to the league’s championship game — the football dream that most Gamecock fans had when he first arrived on campus.

Offensively, running backs Jarvis Giles and Kenny Miles return after showing promise as freshmen in ‘09, and they’ll be joined in the backfield by five-star recruit Marcus Lattimore. However, how committed will Carolina be to pounding the rock? Spurrier promised to get better in the running game, and that may indeed be one of the main reasons the Head Ball Coach wrested the primary play-calling duties away from his son, Steve, Jr. Too many times USC put the ball in the hands of quarterback Stephen Garcia, and that led to stalled drives. A commitment to the running game will only help the enigmatic Garcia — or Connor Shaw if he wins the job — as well as more consistent play from the offensive line, which is under a new position coach for the third time in as many seasons. USC finished last in the SEC in rushing offense last season and were tied for last in allowing the most sacks in the league.

While Garcia likely will never resemble a prolific quarterback from Spurrier’s days at Florida, he must at least be consistent and limit the costly mistakes he seems to make at the worst possible times. From what he has seen this spring thus far, Spurrier is not convinced that Garcia has progressed since last year. The new tough love approach and attitude from the Head Ball Coach may prompt him to make a change under center, as he has made it clear that he’ll play the 6-foot, 199-pound true freshman Shaw if he progresses over the summer and returns well-prepared and focused in the fall.

In wideouts Tori Gurley and Alshon Jeffery, whoever is under center will have weapons on the outside to help complement the rushing attack — keeping opposing defenses honest.

Carolina will be hard-pressed to replace “Mr. Thursday Night Football” Eric Norwood and Clifton Geathers at outside linebacker and defensive end, respectively, but the Gamecocks always find a way to be stingy no matter who lines up on defense.

So might 2010 finally be the year for South Carolina to assume supremacy in the East division? With spring practice in full swing for the opposition and some soon coming to a close, let’s take a look at how South Carolina’s competition in the East stacks up and their respective major storylines as they prepare to break for the summer months.

*Teams are listed in reverse order of where they finished in the 2009 standings.

Vanderbilt: The Commodores are coming off of a winless SEC campaign and will be hard-pressed to grab a lower-tier bowl berth in 2010. However, the ground game will be solid in Nashville, as running back Warren Norman was the SEC Freshman of the Year last season, rushing for 783 yards and averaging over five yards per carry. He also tied a conference record by returning three kickoffs for touchdowns. Zac Stacy also had a fine debut season despite battling through an ankle injury, and Golden Tate’s brother, Wesley, joins the backfield rotation. However, the passing attack will continue to prevent Vandy from scoring enough points to win enough games. Injuries or not last season, it’s a big jump going from scoring five offensive touchdowns in eight conference contests to the postseason.

Kentucky: New head coach Joker Phillips is overseeing a three-man quarterback competition in Lexington, but the strength of the offense must be the rushing attack for the Wildcats. Derrick Locke will continue the recent tradition of productive UK running backs, as he possesses a nice blend of speed and toughness. Not only did he rush for 907 yards and six scores, but he was solid in the passing game, catching 31 balls for 284 yards and two touchdowns. New offensive line coach Mike Summers has his work to do after the unit lost four starters, however, and the passing attack must finish higher than 114th nationally in passing offense as it did a year ago.

Tennessee: The Volunteers are the wild-card team in this division. New head coach Derek Dooley will have either Nick Stephens or Matt Simms under center, but will the winner of the quarterback derby be able to stand upright? The offensive line is a major question mark as it will be very young in the fall. Losing the likes of Eric Berry, Dan Williams and Rico McCoy on defense won’t help, especially as the offense looks to gel early. I like the overall talent level in Knoxville, but I think they’re a year away from being a force in the division.

Georgia: The Georgia-South Carolina game is one of my favorite annual matchups in early September. Ten starters return on offense for the Bulldogs, with the notable exception being the quarterback. The real concern, however, should be on defense, where new coordinator Todd Grantham is installing the 3-4. The Bulldogs gave up big plays and lots of points last season, and both the interior of the defensive line and the secondary suffered major losses to graduation and the draft. Can a pass defense that allowed a league-high 25 touchdowns improve significantly?

Florida: Still the team to beat in the division. Despite losing arguably college football’s greatest player of all time in Tim Tebow, the Gators are loaded with talent — but loaded with many questions, as well, for perhaps the first time since head coach Urban Meyer stepped on campus. Will the Gators be hurting for playmakers? It sounds crazy, but John Brantley isn’t the main concern I have for UF on offense. Redshirt freshman Andre Debose must develop into a consistent, go-to receiver, and Chris Rainey will have to be productive in his new slot position. Can Emmanuel Moody finally be a workhorse in the backfield? He had to leave Saturday’s scrimmage with an injured quad after he had just returned from injuring his ankle. There’s talent at tight end, but losing Aaron Hernandez is very difficult, especially when breaking in a new signal-caller. If there is a year for the Gators to take a step back and allow for division foes to grab the top spot in the East, it would be this one.

Spurrier has lost five or more games in each of his first five seasons at South Carolina, and he’s only surpassed seven wins in a season one time. Yet, his 35 wins are the most victories in a five-year span in South Car olina football history. He signed a one-year contract extension that would keep him in Columbia through 2013, and he said he would like to coach four or five more years.

But coming off of a disastrous Bowl loss to Connecticut to close out last season, many Gamecocks fans began to wonder if Spurrier would ever deliver that standout season many expected when he arrived on campus. With the Gamecocks’ division rivals all vulnerable — including the Gators — next fall, 2010 could be Spurrier’s best chance to win the East division and give fans in Columbia a taste of what it was like to live in Gainesville during his glory days.

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