By Casey Gisclair
*Editors Note: This is the third part of a six-part series previewing LSU’s upcoming football season opponents.
After a murderer’s row September month that features two road games and three meetings with teams who were above .500 in 2014, the LSU football team opens October with a cupcake.
Eastern Michigan will come into Death Valley in Week 5 as a team that can’t help but to be better in 2015 after a nightmare season last fall.
The Eagles were 2-10 in 2014 and lost all of its games by double digits. Blowouts? Eastern Michigan had plenty. The Eagles were beaten by 20 points or more seven times, by 30 or more points five times, and by 40 or more points three times.
With newfound stability under second-year coach Chris Creighton and several players back off last year’s tough season, many around the program think the Eagles will be better in 2015. Eastern Michigan has four players on the Preseason All-MAC team, led by linebacker Great Ibe and defensive lineman Pat O’Connor—the two anchors to the team’s defense.
Media in the area aren’t buying it. The Eagles were picked to finish last in the MAC at the conference’s preseason media days.
“Saturday afternoons last fall were frustrating,” Creighton said. “…But we always built up to a point where we believed we were going to go out there and play well and compete.”
Offensively, Eastern Michigan didn’t have much luck last season, though they do return both their leading passer and rusher.
That would be Eagles quarterback Reginald Bell, who completed 105-of-184 passes for 1,297 yards and nine touchdowns last season. He also gained 562 yards on the ground with four scores. Ball split time this past season with a name LSU fans know—former Tiger backup quarterback Rob Bolden.
Defensively, it’s hard to pinpoint an exact number of starters the Eagles return, because the team swapped lineups frequently throughout the season.
Ibe is unquestionably the top returnee. Last season, the linebacker was what his first name indicates—Great. He recorded 133 tackles, including 11 stops for a loss. Also back on defense is O’Connor, who had 7.5 sacks a year ago.
Eastern Michigan opens the season against Old Dominion. Before traveling to LSU, they’ll play three of their first four games at home.
2014 record: 2-10
Conference: Mid-American Conference (Western Division)
Spring Game Standout: Eastern Michigan halfback Juwan Lewis. The Eagles had a very controlled spring game with points being awarded for first downs and defensive stops. But one of the best plays in the controlled scrimmage was a 61-yard scamper from halfback Lewis, one of the backs likely to see the most time for the team this fall.
Guy you may know: For as poorly as the Eagles may have played in 2014, they do have an NFL linebacker in their front seven. Redshirt senior Great Ibe is a beast for Eastern Michigan—one of the top returning tacklers in the country. Ibe is on the preseason watch list for the 2015 Rotary Lombardi Award, which is given to the best college lineman or linebacker in America. It’s not a type-o. His first name is ‘Great’.
Fun fact: The Eagles have some of the best names in college football. We’ve already talked about Great Ibe, the team’s All-Everything linebacker. But did you know that Eastern Michigan was also home to a freshman defensive lineman named Lion King? The name gods say that’s not too shabby.
Steve Spurrier is not used to being an underdog. That’s what happens when you’ve coached 25 collegiate seasons and have won 226 games, including a national championship.
After a 6-6 regular season that saw the Gamecocks be pushed completely out of the race for the SEC Championship, Spurrier’s 2015 team is exactly that: an underdog.
Without the expectations of old, South Carolina is ready to rebuild and hope for more success in 2015. Despite losing quarterback Dylan Thompson and halfback Mike Davis, the self-proclaimed ‘head ball coach’ said this year’s team has a chance to compete.
LSU will travel and face the Gamecocks in Week 6.
“We’ve got a lot of new players across the board,” Spurrier said. “But we’re hoping to return to where we were the prior three years—a Top 10 team. We believe we have a fighting chance to do that. … We’re really looking forward to this year.”
Offensively, Spurrier will have to do some of his best work to make the Gamecocks into a top-notch unit.
With Thompson gone under center and Davis no longer able to tote the rock in the trenches, South Carolina will be asked to replace more than 4,500 yards of combined total offense and 37 touchdowns.
At quarterback, Spurrier said the Gamecocks will enter fall camp with three guys who may be the starter in any given game—Connor Mitch, Perry Orth and Michael Scarnecchia.
Of the three, only Mitch has experience, albeit minimal. He was 2-of-6 with 19 yards last season.
Spurrier said he doesn’t see the competition as a detriment. He actually thinks it’ll be good for the Gamecocks. The veteran coach pointed to his days at Florida and noted that several of his great Gators teams had multiple solid quarterbacks who shared time throughout the season.
“I’ve been a coach to play two quarterbacks,” Spurrier said. “I think you all know that. You can win with two. There’s nothing in the rulebook that says you have to have just one. If we do play more than one, it will be because both of them are about the same ability-wise.”
If the Gamecocks are able to get steady play under center, they’ll have guys to throw the ball to. South Carolina returns dominant receiver Pharoh Cooper—a 5-foot-11 standout who caught 72 passes for 1,190 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.
Spurrier said the Gamecocks will use Cooper early and often in 2015. The coach wants to see Pharoh have numbers similar to another SEC Cooper did last year—Alabama standout Amari Cooper, who was a Heisman Trophy candidate.
“We call him the South Carolina Pharoh, not the American Pharaoh,” Spurrier said with a laugh. “He’s a really good player. He can play receiver, shotgun quarterback. He can throw. He can run. He’s really an All-American-type player.”
But the truth is that for South Carolina to compete, its defense must be better. The Gamecocks allowed 30 or more points in seven games this past season—a move that prompted Spurrier to hire veteran John Hoke as defensive coordinator.
Hoke worked with Spurrier at Florida and the two combined to field a defense that was No. 1 in the SEC in total defense and scoring defense.
“We can get a lot better on defense,” Spurrier said. “But for whatever reason last year, we did not play well defensively. Probably more my fault than anybody’s.
“It’s gone very smoothly during spring ball and preseason, but now, we’ve got to do it on the field, but we’re anxious and eagerly awaiting preseason practice.”
2014 record: 7-6
Conference: Southeastern Conference (Eastern Division)
Spring Game Standout: After a slow start to the Gamecocks’ spring game, quarterback Michael Scarnecchia caught fire and completed 10-of-12 passes for 162 yards over the final three quarters of the game to help his team. South Carolina’s quarterbacks combined for 33-of-54 passing for 511 yards in the game—helping to silence some of the doubt about their ability heading into the fall.
Guy you may know: The Gamecocks return arguably the best receiver in the SEC in Pharoh Cooper—an all-everything player for South Carolina. Cooper plays primarily at wide receiver, but he also can be a Wildcat quarterback or even a tailback. Cooper is a near-lock to be a First-Team All-SEC selection this fall, and is one of the best returning players in the conference.
Fun fact: Despite having either Steve Spurrier or Lou Holtz as head coach for the past 15 seasons, South Carolina has never won the SEC. The Gamecocks have only won the SEC Eastern Division Championship once. That happened in 2010. The Gamecocks lost the SEC Championship game in decisive fashion—a 56-17 shellacking at the hands of Auburn.