In two days, South Carolina opens the 2011 season with a non-conference game against East Carolina at Bank of America Stadium.
1. Who will start at quarterback for South Carolina?: Steve Spurrier is seemingly keeping the identity of USC's starting QB a secret until the very end, although his call-in show tonight should be an appropriate time to reveal the choice. Of course, whether there is a true quarterback battle going on or it's simply strategic to keep fifth-year senior Stephen Garcia alert, on his toes and working hard is the important question. The guess here is that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Little would appear to be gained by having Connor Shaw start the opener and then turn around and give Garcia most of the snaps at Georgia, which is likely to happen. If Spurrier truly wanted Shaw as the starter, he would have probably announced it by now.
2. How many carries will Marcus Lattimore get?: Just enough to win the game. Since I don't expect the contest to be close on the scoreboard, Lattimore is likely to get about 15 to 20 carries before being pulled in favor of the backups. That should be enough to reach 100 yards for the fifth time in his career. The main goal for USC is for Lattimore to get his work in, get comfortable playing in front of a large crowd again and move on to next week's showdown with Georgia in Athens. It will probably be good news if Lattimore has less than five carries in the second half.
3. How many wide receivers will see meaningful action in this game?: Five or six. The rest will step onto the field for mopup duty as long as USC runs away with it (Frankly, there is a better chance of Earth being struck by a comet in the next 24 hours than ECU routing the Gamecocks, unless USC comes out and plays like zombies). The top four receivers (Alshon Jeffery, D.L. Moore, Jason Barnes, Ace Sanders) will all receive plenty of opportunities to make plays. Damiere Byrd should be a fixture in the lineup soon because of his speed and very good hands. How many snaps will Bruce Ellington and DeAngelo Smith see? Good question. Both showed flashes in preseason camp.
4. Will We See The Wildcat Offense?: Probably. The key question is when does USC finally break it out. Do they run it in the first half or hold off until the second half and then put Ellington on the field? During the public portion of preseason camp (first 10 days), USC rarely operated the offense out of the Wildcat. With the public and media locked out, USC might have picked up the pace. Ellington should at least get a few snaps with an eye on next week's game at Georgia.
5. Is The East Carolina defense really as bad as it showed in 2010?: Probably not. But the Pirates are still lacking sufficient talent on defense, and trying to stop a USC offense featuring All-Americans Lattimore and Jeffery is too much to ask at this point in time. The ECU defensive coaches will tell you last year's dismal performance was attributable in part to injuries to key personnel. Some of those players are back, so maybe their fortunes will improve in 2011. Then again, after finishing last in the country in total defense last season, there's no place to go but up for the Pirates.
6. What concerns USC the most about the ECU "Air Raid" offense?: The high-flying offense Pirates offensive coordinator Lincoln Riley learned while coaching under Mike Leach at Texas Tech is designed to get the ball to the receivers in space and let them gain significant yards after catch. With ECU quarterback Dominique Davis taking three-step drops for most of the night, the Pirates should try lots of short passes, bubble screens and quick slants early to try to soften up the USC defense. After that, they could try some deep passes downfield. ECU's Lance Lewis could be the best wide receiver in the Tar Heel State in 2011. Containing him is essential, especially with former USC signee Michael Bowman suspended.
8. Will ECU be able to run the football against USC?: Probably not. There is a reason ECU is 1-10 in its last 11 games against schools from BCS conferences. Typically, the Pirates are out-manned along both lines of scrimmage, and this game shouldn't be much different. USC's front seven appears to be improved over last year, when USC was third in the conference in rushing defense (112.4 ypg). Excluding quarterbacks, ECU has just 85 rushing yards (5.5 percent of 2010 total) returning from last season, so whoever carries the ball is being asked to be "the guy" for the first time.
7. How do you stop ECU's attack?: Football 101 says the key to limiting the effectiveness of an offense like the Air Raid is keeping the YAC under control. If USC is successful in doing that, ECU will be forced to thrown downfield or try to run the ball, which takes it out of its comfort zone. If the ECU quarterback is forced to start taking five- and seven-step drops, the USC defensive line should be able to pile up the sacks. Hello, Jadeveon Clowney. Which, of course, leads to this question ...
9. How many sacks will the USC defense have?: If USC is able to cut off ECU at the knees as far as the Air Raid passing attack is concerned, the USC defensive line should enjoy a huge night. Don't be surprised, though, if ECU enjoys some early success during the feeling-out process. But once USC's defensive talent kicks into gear, watch out. ECU has one very good receiver, but USC should be able to keep him under control and dare the other inexperienced receivers to beat them. The best guess right now is probably three or four sacks.
10. Has Spurrier really never lost to a non-BCS conference school in his 21 years as a college head coach?: Yes. Spurrier enters the ECU game with a career mark of 41-0 against non-BCS schools, including a 15-0 mark since coming to USC in 2005. The ECU game is the first of three opportunities for him to coach against non-BCS schools in 2011, with the Gamecocks also scheduled to face Navy and The Citadel at home. 44-0 by the end of this season? Yes.