Preamble. SEC Speeeeeeedddddd!!! Grown Man Football(TM)!!!!! Meh. I've said it before and I'll say it again. It's never been about conferences. It's always been about programs. South Carolina is in many crucial respects what Mizzou is trying to be. Having lived here in Columbia (SC) for the better part of a decade, if any program provides a road map for Mizzou it's the Gamecocks. After the 2005 Independence Bowl, the primary (but not the only) difference in these two programs has been the boost to recruiting that SEC exposure provides.
South Carolina, along with Arkansas, has played the role of conference outsider; the SEC's red-headed step-child that should belong, yet somehow really doesn't. At the same time, as much as any program, it has benefited greatly from the exposure provided by ESPN and CBS. So even during some dark days, at the short end of some pretty nasty butt-whoopins, complete with "chicken curse" taunts, South Carolina just kept putting money in the bank and kept its name in the faces of some pretty talented recruits. They can't all play for Alabama. For a tiny state (< 5 million), SC generates a lot of high-caliber recruits. It took time, but after a while many began to play at USC rather than jump ship to Georgia, Florida, FSU, et al.
So, in a game where we pretty much sucked from the opening kick to the final whistle, what's important to remember is that there is little reason or time to dwell on road losses. They're just not uncommon. Better programs than this have come out flat on the road, were never able to get it together, and left town sore-assed. That stings the pride, but it's rarely fatal. It's not cause for existential crisis. Evaluate. Learn what there is to learn. Move to the next one. A benefit of being in this conference--that really is about the conference--is that it's very forgiving of losses. No one is saying, "I can't believe you got blasted at South Carolina."
Onto the thoughts...
1. We need to figure out what this offensive line can be, and quickly. Every unit was bad yesterday, so I'm not signling out the offensive line. But, we need to figure out what it does well. Coming into the season, the calling card for this offense was to be balance--an ability to run or pass in almost any situation. After all the injuries and flux, and then having faced two elite defensive fronts (UGa and SCar) and one solid front (ASU), I don't know if anyone can say whether that is still true. Given the personnel we have now, should the offense be built off the quick passing game? Should it double down on running the ball to stay out of passing downs? I'm not sure anyone can know the answer, including Pinkel and Yost. That's not about finding fault. It's just to say that right now so much is in flux it's hard to know anything. We need to get some answers this week if a bowl is to be in our future.
2. In the SEC, my fear is that the difference in special teams is real. In my opinion, one "real" difference between what I see in the SEC and other conferences is devotion to the field position battle in kick coverage and return. South Carolina essentially never had poor field position in the entire game. That kind of thing goes way beyond just playing starters on special teams. SEC schools appear to devote more recruiting resources to finding "athletes" whose major contributions are on special teams. If they happen to develop into contributing position players then great. Ace Sanders is a prime example. He is still really learning to play receiver at this level, but was an immediate special teams contributor. That has not been the Pinkel modus operandi. If anything, we have been spoiled by consistent excellence in the kicking part of the kicking game until recently. However, coverage and returns have been something of an afterthought rather than central to strategy. That'll need to change.