The Gamecocks felt the sting of the SEC's depth last season in much the same way Texas A&M did: Both teams went 11-2 and 6-2 in conference play, yet only managed a third-place finish in their respective divisions. They did it with a stingy defense that recorded 43 sacks, led by perhaps college football's best player, pass rusher Jadeveon Clowney. That's been the formula for much of coach Steve Spurrier's success at South Carolina, a much different path than the offensive fireworks he won with at Florida.
In terms of NFL talent, this South Carolina team appears to be a bit more balanced, with as many pro prospects at offensive line and tight end as any position on the field. Still, Clowney is the crown jewel among prospects not only on his team, but in the entire SEC. South Carolina has been a serious contributor to the draft the last couple years, with 13 selections over the past two drafts and 24 since 2009. Don't expect that pace to slow down next spring.
Top senior prospects
CB Jimmy Legree: A marginal NFL prospect, Legree made 43 tackles and six pass breakups last year in his only season as a starter. Due to heavy attrition from its 2009 and 2010 signing classes, South Carolina has only four scholarship seniors on its roster for 2013.
DE Chaz Sutton: Sutton (6-foot-5, 265 pounds) will play end opposite Clowney. Because Clowney will draw much of the extra protection from backs and tight ends, Sutton should frequently benefit from one-on-one matchups in pass-rush situations. Sutton was credited with five sacks last year. Look for a number closer to 10 in 2013.
TE Jerell Adams: Only a sophomore, Adams (6-6, 237) has big-time potential, having earned Freshman All-SEC honors last year while catching four passes for 90 yards and a score. Adams had a one-year stop at a military prep school between high school and college.
TE Rory Anderson:A Mackey Award candidate, Anderson (6-5, 245) has averaged 20.9 yards per catch over his first two seasons -- a huge number for a tight end -- and is growing into a more effective blocker. The junior has scored eight touchdowns on 22 career catches.
DE Jadeveon Clowney: Clowney is the top pass rusher in the nation, and, barring injury, he will almost certainly be a top-five pick in the 2014 NFL Draft if he declares his intentions to apply for early entry. At 6-6 and 275, he has the frame to play in any system. Clowney made 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss last year (second in the SEC in both categories) among his 50 stops. His status as the defensive darling of the college game was cemented in bowl season against Michigan.
RB Mike Davis: The true sophomore won't be able to get his day in the NFL sun until 2015 or 2016, but he might well be the Gamecocks' lead back this fall. Davis ran for 275 yards on 52 carries as a freshman last year, with a 5.3 yards-per-catch average that led South Carolina's regulars at the position.
WR Bruce Ellington: An explosive and instinctive athlete, Ellington is not only South Carolina's best returning receiver (40 catches, 600 yards, 9 touchdowns), but he is the Gamecocks' best basketball player as well (point guard). At 5-9 and 195, he figures to get his NFL chance as a special-teams player or slot receiver.
DB Vic Hampton: A talented cornerback who is short but strong (5-10, 202), Hampton is South Carolina's best cover man and punt returner. Made six pass breakups last season and posted one interception. After focus and attitude problems were an issue early in his career, the fourth-year junior has also developed into one of the team's hardest workers.
DL Kelcy Quarles: The 6-4, 300-pound junior is a high-motor player who made 36 tackles a year ago with 2.5 sacks and seven tackles for loss. If South Carolina's defense is as good as expected, Quarles could land on some All-SEC teams in December. Quarles was suspended for the Florida game last year for taking a poke at an LSU player the previous week.
OT Corey Robinson: Gamecocks coaches have worked the fourth-year junior on offense, then defense, then back to offense in his career, but he's finally found a home at left tackle. He was soft upon entering college, but has since made great strides in the weight room. At 6-8 and 340, he is more than big enough to play left tackle in the NFL.
OT Brandon Shell: A massive right tackle (6-6, 325), Shell's athleticism is frightening (36.5-inch vertical jump). He also has turned something of a corner when it comes to work ethic and conditioning. The third-year sophomore has three years of eligibility remaining, but shouldn't need all of them to get a draft-day call. Shell's great uncle is Pro Football Hall of Famer Art Shell.
Three must-see games of 2013
Aug. 29 vs. North Carolina: The Gamecocks open the season with a cross-state, non-conference matchup that should be competitive.
Nov. 16 vs. Florida: Spurrier hosts his former team, and might have a chance to clinch an SEC East title with a win.
Nov. 30 vs. Clemson: South Carolina seeks its fifth consecutive win over Clemson, which hasn't happened in the series since the 1930s.