Is this South Carolina's year to finally break through in the SEC East?
With Florida re-discovering itself without Tim Tebow and not much expected from Georgia and Tennessee, the Gamecocks might find themselves in position to win the first division championship in school history.
South Carolina has 16 starters back from last season's 7-6 team that lost 20-7 to Connecticut in the Papajohns.com Bowl.
That might not mean much for this season, however, because the Gamecocks have been known to underachieve. Still, with one of the SEC's more experienced quarterbacks in junior Stephen Garcia and a stout defense led by end Cliff Matthews (Cheraw) and cornerback Stephon Gilmore (South Pointe), South Carolina should at least contend.
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Here are three key questions facing the Gamecocks, who begin preseason practice today, aiming for a Sept. 2 season opener against Southern Mississippi on Sept. 2 (a Thursday nighter on ESPN):
Can Garcia live up to the sky-high expectations of coach Steve Spurrier?
The quarterback certainly wasn't been given a vote of confidence by the coach in the offseason. But playing quarterback for Spurrier is never easy and Garcia shouldn't expect this season to be any different. He threw for 2,862 yards and 17 touchdowns last season and is entrenched as the starter. He might get a push from behind from freshman Connor Shaw.
If Garcia doesn't deliver, what happens to the offense?
South Carolina has a stable of impressive backs, so the running game should flourish. The top returner is Kenny Miles, who ran for 626 yards last season (with a 5.4-yard average). Brian Maddox, Jarvis Giles and Eric Baker also have experience. Then there's highly regarded freshman Marcus Lattimore from Duncan Byrnes High, who could quickly contribute.
South Carolina's defense was excellent last season and lost its top pass rusher in linebacker Eric Norwood to the Carolina Panthers. How does the defense recover from that?
Pretty easily, especially with players like Matthews and Gilmore still around. Matthews had seven sacks and three tackles for a loss in 2009 and Gilmore is a first-team preseason all-conference pick. Don't forget about linebacker Shaq Wilson, who actually led the Gamecocks in tackles last season with 85.