Projecting the SEC East in 2013: South Carolina (and Jadeveon Clowney) at No. 2

USA TODAY Sports

South Carolina loses a lot on defense, and two major playmakers on offense. But the Gamecocks still have Jadeveon Clowney.

Neil's post-spring SEC preview series is nearing its end. There's one more projection, which we're saving for Monday. I think you know which team it is.

For more on South Carolina, head to Garnet and Black Attack.

No. 2 South Carolina

Starters returning: Seven on offense, five on defense

The good: Well, this team still has Jadeveon Clowney, doesn't it? That and the fact that Steve Spurrier is their coach alone should keep them in any conversation about the SEC East. Connor Shaw, who missed the spring due to injury, or Dylan Thompson, who stepped in and had himself a phenomenal spring, are both solid quarterbacks to have in the SEC. Whichever QB plays, the Gamecocks will have plenty of experience.

The offense does lose Marcus Lattimore, but since he was rarely healthy to begin with, it's not like the Gamecocks are unprepared to move on without him. Together, Brandon Wilds and Mike Davis could cause just as much damage as Lattimore did.

The bad: Behind Clowney and his fellow defensive linemen Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles, this defense is shot full of holes. The Gamecocks lose their entire two-deep at linebacker, safety D.J. Swearinger and Spur position player (more on the Spur here) DeVonte Holloman. In addition to the losses on defense, the Gamecocks lose their top receiving threat, Ace Sanders.

The schedule doesn't do them any favors, either. South Carolina plays three straight road games in October at teams that should be much improved: Arkansas, Tennessee, and Missouri. The Gamecocks also have to go play at Georgia and UCF.

The key: Stop the run. This defense is already in trouble in terms of defending the pass. If they're going to stay in games, Clowney is going to need some new faces at linebacker to step in and help make at least one phase of this defense solid.

Key game: At Georgia. While the Gamecocks may be looking ahead to Florida, a loss to Georgia to start their SEC campaign would be fatal.

Somewhat relevant fact: Since 2008, South Carolina is 14-2 in the month of September.

Relevant fact: Both of South Carolina's top two quarterbacks have thrown game-winning touchdown passes in the final four minutes of a game.

Overall: It's hard to believe the Gamecocks realistically still have room to improve. They are a good, not great team, one that nobody in Columbia can complain about because what they have now is better than they've ever had before Spurrier got there. Aside from Bruce Ellington, the Gamecocks don't have a proven threat to go to in the passing game, and their defense is full of question marks.

I'm sure this team can be good again in two years, but even with experience at the QB position and promising running backs, this team has too many holes in too many other parts of their roster to believe they can escape the three-week October gauntlet and make it back to Atlanta. An Outback Bowl appearance seems to be a reasonable goal for them.

Projection: 11-2, (6-2 SEC), Outback Bowl champions.

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