South Carolina is in the Final Four, which is surprising to me -- mainly because I thought they cancelled men's basketball.
Or something like that.
Seriously, though: I picked against South Carolina in every single round, starting against Marquette. Beat Duke? Never crossed my mind. After all, prior to this magical month, the program hadn't won an NCAA tournament game since 1973. This is just their second tourney appearance since 1998. I had ample reason to doubt.
Now, I'm obsessed.
The Gamecocks play terrific defense and turn it into buckets. The offense has been on fire. Frank Martin is a fantastic, hard-nosed coach and the team takes on his personality. The Gamecocks aren't just winning these games -- they're destroying the opposition in the second half, knocking out more decorated and higher-ranked teams.
With South Carolina authoring a true Cinderella run and hitting the Final Four for the first time in program history, the crack staff at NFL.com asked me to forecast a Cinderella team for the 2017 NFL season. Which pro football squad can be a mirror image of this Gamecocks basketball team?
So, you need a team that didn't make the playoffs last season. (I actually had to jog the mental rolodex and remember whether or not the Lions hit the postseason, but I digress.) You need a team with little history, a team with a hard-nosed coach whom the nation is ready to appreciate. You need an underdog team America can get behind and cheer for.
See, I don't even know yet if I'm picking Jacksonville to make the playoffs. But that's the point. Even just a few weeks ago, who in their right mind envisioned South Carolina competing for a national title -- in basketball? You can't be Cinderella if everyone assumes you'll be the belle of the ball. And let's be honest: Jacksonville has some serious questions heading into the 2017 campaign. Allow me to address those right off the bat.
First of all, many folks expected a breakthrough performance by the Jaguarslast season. And they disappointed in a major way, going 3-13 and finishing deep in the AFC South cellar. But let's take a closer look at that 3-13 for a second. Jacksonville wasn't getting blown off the field. The Jaguars lost eight games by seven points or fewer. And Jacksonville's most impressive win -- a 38-17 pasting of the Titans in Week 16 -- came in Doug Marrone's first game as the interim coach, replacing the fired Gus Bradley. In related news: Marrone earned the permanent gig and will be leading the Jags in 2017. This is no small thing. As I said a few weeks ago, Gus Bradley is a nice guy ... but a terrible head coach. Marrone is a large upgrade. And now that he has Tom Coughlin running the front office? Yeah, I think Jacksonville's pointed in the right direction.
OK, let's address the elephant in the room -- or, shall I say, the elephant under center. Blake Bortles has this problem. It's throwing the forward pass. But I do know that Marrone believes in the former No. 3 overall pick. And with Marrone running the show for the final two games of last season, Bortles did look pretty good, completing 66 percent of his passes for 626 yards, two touchdowns and zero picks -- good enough for a 99.8 quarterback rating. I think it's set up for Bortles to be ... good? Solid in the first half (unlike last year)? Improved? I'm Ron Burgundy?
For real, though: Bortles has talent around him -- like my guy Allen Robinson. And Robinson isn't alone in that receiving corps: Allen Hurns is one year removed from a 1,000-yard campaign, while Marqise Lee took a big step forward last season. And speaking of the passing game, you gotta protect the quarterback. Bortles has been sacked a whopping 140 times in three pro seasons. Well, Jacksonville went out and upgraded his blind-side protection with the trade for Branden Albert. In the backfield, the Jags have a pair of bruisers in Chris Ivory and T.J. Yeldon. Truth be told, though, I would love to see them add talent in next month's draft, which is filled with strong runners. How much of a boost could Leonard Fournette provide to this offense?
And did I mention Marrone?
Before this year's NCAA tournament, Frank Martin didn't exactly make people feel all warm and fuzzy. But he already won March with his brilliance and aplomb. (Oh, and that fabulous exchange with the young Sports Illustrated for Kids reporter didn't hurt.) Martin's personality wasn't always viewed as a positive when he wasn't winning.
In a similar vein, Marrone is one tough son of a gun. He isn't in this business to make friends. But from my own personal interactions with the coach, I think he is a great guy. And I would encourage him to show that side to the public -- like Martin has -- when applicable.
These Jaguars are going to be tough and disciplined and well-coached. Like the Gamecocks. Marrone and Coughlin will add the attitude and toughness that's been missing in Jacksonville for quite some time.
So will the great Calais Campbell, who was a fantastic leader and player in Arizona. Campbell will hold this team accountable. And his overpowering, versatile game will give the defense a new dimension up front. I also loved the free-agent signing of A.J. Bouye. With Bouye and second-year stud Jalen Ramsey, the Jaguars now have one of the better cornerback tandems in the NFL. Honestly, this defense is loaded with talent at every level. Myles Jack and Dante Fowler Jr. haven't even scratched the surface yet. Last season, Jacksonville ranked sixth in total defense ... but 25th in scoring D. Thinkin' the latter ranking will come a lot closer to the former in 2017.
Budding talent ready to shine. A hard-nosed coach poised to earn your affection. Commitment to defense and toughness. Sound like a team ready to shock the football world?