Practice for the 2011 season officially gets underway on Wednesday (the first workout at 7:30 p.m. is open to the public), so it's time to put forth our 10 predictions for the season. As we know, most, if not all, of these prognostications will come true. Or maybe not. Here is Part 1 of our sales presentation.
1. The Winner Of The USC-Georgia Game Will Win The SEC East: Yes, the Sept. 10 battle in Athens between the Gamecocks and Bulldogs will be a high-stakes showdown played in front of 90,000-plus fans and a national TV audience. Why will it decide the East? Not only will the winner gain an important advantage (they would have to lose at least twice in conference play the rest of the way), but Florida shouldn't be a factor because of its schedule. The Gators have a brutal October slate with consecutive contests against Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Georgia. They could easily go 0-4 during that stretch and fall out of the race by the start of November. Granted, USC would have some tough road games left after leaving Athens, but I believe a victory in Sanford Stadium would propel the Gamecocks towards a record-setting season.
2. Stephen Garcia Will Become USC's All-Time Leader In Career Passing Yardage and Touchdown Passes: Steve Spurrier maintains that Garcia could enjoy a superb senior season if he stays focused, continues to keep his eyes on the prize and sustains his "completely new lifestyle." Indications from summer workouts show Garcia is on the right track. With lethal weapons surrounding him, Garcia should be able to play relaxed and let stars like Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery, and a host of others, do their things. He needs 3,201 passing yards and 20 touchdown passes to leave Columbia as the all-time leader in both categories. Having a strong and respected running game will keep defenses honest and prevent them from blitzing too much, which is what happened last season as Lattimore's reputation grew around the SEC. Look for a huge season from Garcia.
3. Marcus Lattimore Will Average 100 Yards Rushing Per Game: The rising sophomore averaged 92.1 yards rushing per game in 2010 en route to being honored as the consensus National Freshman of the Year. Now, with an experienced and improved offensive line (three seniors and a junior among the five expected starters), along with an additional 8 to 10 pounds of muscle while getting faster and stronger, Lattimore could inflict even more damage on opposing defenses in 2011. Also, USC is now in the second year of Shawn Elliott's inside zone blocking scheme, which means everybody should be more comfortable this time around. If Lattimore is able to reach the century mark, he would finish with at least 1,400 rushing yards if the Gamecocks reach the SEC championship game again. Even if he doesn't win the Heisman Trophy in 2011, a season like that would undoubtedly make him the favorite heading into 2012.
4. The USC Defense Will Set Another Sack Record: The Gamecocks led the SEC in sacks with a school-record 41 last season and the only significant contributors from a sacks perspective who departed the program were Cliff Matthews (5.5 sacks) and Ladi Ajiboye (2.0). Out of the nine players that had multiple sacks in 2010, seven return, led by Melvin Ingram (9.0) and Devin Taylor (7.5). Now the Gamecocks add a "war daddy" to the roster in extremely talented Jadeveon Clowney, who is expected to immediately become a major force along the defensive front. Clowney could have five of six sacks easily. Together, Ingram, Taylor and Clowney could register 20 sacks. Could USC reach 50 sacks in 2011? Between the returning players, the addition of Clowney and players switching positions (DeVonte Holloman to spur), the answer is yes.
5. Alshon Jeffery Will Have At Least 80 Receptions: Jeffery shattered the school record for most receptions in a single season with 88 for 1,517 yards and nine touchdowns in 2010. The easier route would be to say that Jeffery will have 90-plus receptions, but several factors prevent me from making that prediction: 1) the increased attention Jeffery is sure to receive from opposing secondaries; 2) Steve Spurrier Jr.'s desire to get additional receivers more involved in the passing game (Jeffery is the only pass catcher with 30-plus receptions returning); 3) the impact of Lattimore in the running game. Considering all those factors, it could be challenging for Jeffery to surpass his 88 receptions in 2010. But he'll still have a fabulous season, putting himself in position to become a top-10 pick in next April's NFL Draft. Jeffery is a human highlight film considering some of the outrageously fantastic catches he makes. And 2011 promises more of the same. How do you spell Biletnikoff Trophy?