Charlotte, NC – The 12th-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks are conference opener.
Steve Spurrier enters his seventh year as head coach of the Gamecocks, and this 2011 group is without question his most talented to date.
"We feel like we've probably assembled the best group of players we've had in the seven years now that I've been there," says Spurrier. "But time will tell. Time will tell how this year's team will do."
The Gamecocks won the SEC East title for the first time in 2010 and represented the division in the conference championship game. While that tilt resulted in defeat, South Carolina still finished with nine victories and welcomes back the vast majority of key contributors from that club.
As for East Carolina, it finished 6-7 last season under first-year head coach Ruffin McNeill.
"We qualified for a postseason bowl," said McNeill, pointing out the positives. "There are a lot of teams that would like to go to a bowl but cannot. Are we satisfied with that? No. We came here to win championships."
This year's group of Pirates enter with exactly half of the starters back between the offensive and defensive units.
South Carolina owns a 10-5 series lead over East Carolina, but the Pirates won the most recent meeting back in 1999.
Last season as a freshman, South Carolina tailback Marcus Lattimore posted 1,197 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns on 249 carries, proving to be a true workhorse. Another 250-carry season is likely in the cards, as Lattimore has the body to endure the grind and the skill to challenge for the Heisman Trophy.
"I've got a great offensive line," says Lattimore. "I think the game has slowed down a little bit more; I've been in the film room a little bit more. I think I've got a shot."
South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia will end his South Carolina career with more suspensions (five) than varsity letters, and that's unfortunate for his teammates because the senior can really play. The fiery Garcia threw for just over 3,000 yards with 20 touchdowns last season, although his 14 interceptions bothered Spurrier.
Garcia's job is clearly made easier by the talents of wideout Alshon Jeffery, who recorded 88 catches for 1,517 yards and nine touchdowns a year ago. Jeffery is a Heisman candidate in his own right, and it is entirely possible that he and Lattimore will steal votes from each other.
All eyes will be on South Carolina freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney in this opener, as he is the nation's top recruit. One of the most physically gifted athletes to enter the college ranks in recent memory, Clowney has the tools to be a dominant pass rusher and will play despite a sore ankle.
"He's young and we've got a lot of work to do, but I think he's going to play a good part on our defense this year," says defensive tackle Travian Robertson. "He's got a lot of speed. We've just got to figure out where we're going to put him."
Stephon Gilmore may be the next great corner to emerge from the SEC, as the South Carolina standout has the physical skills to be special. Last season, Gilmore posted 79 total tackles, including 66 of the solo variety, and registered three interceptions as well.
Up front, Melvin Ingram is back after posting nine sacks as a junior. Ingram's ability to play both end and tackle makes him extra valuable to Ellis Johnson, South Carolina's well-respected defensive coordinator.
There is no question that the South Carolina defense will be tested by ECU's Dominique Davis in this opener. Playing in McNeill's Texas Tech offense last season, Davis threw for 3,967 yards and 37 touchdowns while completing nearly 65 percent of his passes. He is multi-dimensional, scoring nine rushing touchdowns last year and asserting himself as one of the most versatile quarterbacks in the country.
Davis has back two of his top three receivers from a year ago in seniors Lance Lewis and Michael Bowman. Lewis caught 89 passes for 1,116 yards and 14 touchdowns a year ago.
The big concern for the offense is whether anyone aside from Davis will prove to be a threat as a runner.
In 2010, ECU surrendered 44 points per game and 479 yards of offense, ranking among the worst defenses in the country statistically. Six starters are back, which may or may not be a good thing.
Emanuel Davis, a 2010 First Team All-Conference USA pick at corner, returns to lead the secondary that gave up 252 yards passing per game last season. Davis had 54 tackles and eight pass deflections in 13 starts a year ago.