South Carolina Football: 5 Things Standing in the Way of an SEC Championship
Each of the last three seasons, South Carolina has finished 11-2, including 6-2 in the SEC, but it hasn't been quite enough to get the Gamecocks into the conference championship game.
South Carolina should be well positioned once again to challenge for an SEC East title and a shot at the championship.
The talent is more or less in place for another big year, there are questions surrounding the other teams in the SEC East and the schedule sets up favorably.
If the Gamecocks can overcome the following five obstacles, the school's first SEC Championship is there for the taking.
The SEC West Winner
Teams from the SEC West have dominated the conference recently, winning the last five conference championship games.
In fact, other than Alabama's 32-28 victory over Georgia in the 2012 title game, it hasn't even been close.
Alabama, Auburn and LSU have combined to win the last five SEC titles, and one of those three teams is likely to be lying in wait in Atlanta once again for the SEC East winner.
South Carolina is 1-10 against those three schools in coach Steve Spurrier's nine seasons with the Gamecocks.
In two of the last three seasons, a loss to a team it should have beaten has derailed South Carolina's SEC East title hopes.
Last season, it was a 23-21 loss at Tennessee, a team in rebuilding mode that would finish the season 5-7, 2-6 in the SEC, that cost the Gamecocks the title.
In 2011, it was a 16-13 loss at home to a very average Auburn team that kept the Gamecocks from playing for the SEC championship.
If South Carolina can beat the teams it's supposed to beat, and pull off an upset or two, it can be a special season for the Gamecocks.
Other than the two untimely knee injuries that plagued the career of tailback Marcus Lattimore, the Gamecocks have been relatively fortunate on the injury front in recent years.
Last season, injuries decimated both Florida and Georgia, ending any hopes those teams had for winning the SEC East.
If there's good news for the Gamecocks, is that they do have the best depth they've had in the Spurrier era at all but a few positions.
Obviously, it takes a little luck, but avoiding injuries to key personnel will be critical for any team that expects to win a conference championship.
South Carolina's biggest personnel questions come in the secondary where the Gamecocks have to replace their top-three cornerbacks and on the defensive line where they lose three of four starters, including All-Americans Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles.
Up front, the Gamecocks have players ready to step in who have experience.
That's not the case in the secondary, where Rico McWilliams is the only returning cornerback with experience.
South Carolina did a solid job of addressing both need areas in the incoming recruiting class.
How those players perform, particularly at cornerback, will play a big factor in whether the Gamecocks can successfully challenge for a conference championship.
Great Quarterback Play
Dylan Thompson has proven himself to be a good quarterback.
Now he needs to take the next step and prove that he's a great one.
Thompson is surrounded by enough talent on offense to get by with simply doing a good job of distributing the football and making sound decisions.
However, in every season there seems to be at least one game that requires a superlative effort on the part of the quarterback. (Exhibit A: Connor Shaw vs. Missouri, last season).
When that time comes, Thompson has to deliver.