5 biggest concerns I have about South Carolina in 2019
Upgraded recruiting and improved health are two reasons South Carolina players and coaches believe they will fix the problems that plagued them last season.
If the program can fix those issues, and find a consistent running game while cutting down on turnovers, that could propel it out of the 6- or 7-win projection many see for the Gamecocks. Plenty of questions remain, though, and that’s why the Gamecocks would surprise more than a few people if they finish at, or near, the top of the SEC East.
Simply put, can veteran players fix prolonged mistakes, and can the newcomers overachieve early?
Here are the 5 biggest concerns I have about this season:
1. Getting off on the right foot
The difficult schedule has been well-discussed, but beating North Carolina is paramount to a successful season. Historically, South Carolina does well in season openers, but it hasn’t exactly been automatic. Against North Carolina, the 2015 win was 17-13, and the 2007 team, which had a 6-6 record, won just 21-15. Though the Tar Heels return 14 starters, there are plenty of new wrinkles with the Mack Brown staff turnover. The Tar Heels have lost their past 4 openers, and they’ve also dropped 3 consecutive neutral-site games, which this one falls into being in Charlotte. The Gamecocks are a touchdown favorite. A loss would make reaching bowl eligibility very difficult, unless the Gamecocks pull multiple SEC upsets. The 5 games before the first bye week should offer a good barometer for the season as the road game at Missouri is another interesting swing game. But the Gamecocks have won all 3 SEC road openers under Muschamp.
2. Can they fix the red-zone offense problems?
South Carolina was second-to-last in the SEC in 2018 in red-zone offense, as it converted 76.8 percent of the time. Muschamp is well aware, and has touched on this alarming stat: The team had 56 red-zone trips but were held scoreless 13 times — and 8 times had a turnover. Jake Bentley is often lauded for his intangibles and leadership, but this is an area that must show improvement enough to rise into at least the middle of the SEC for the team to have a decent record this year. Mix that with a turnover margin that was minus-5, worst in the East, and it’s a difficult combination to overcome. This is an area where 2nd-year offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon could show his development as a play-caller. It’s also an area where transfer Tavien Feaster can provide some answers.
3. How will “competitive depth” translate to an improved run defense?
As Muschamp trumpets this roster as his best yet in Columbia, much of that is on defense and particularly along the front. Not many areas struggled as much last season as rushing defense, which was 13th in the SEC, allowing 195 yards per game. Through a combination of improving NFL resumes, and freshmen or other underclassmen developing ahead of schedule, this part of the defense needs a dramatic upgrade. The likes of Javon Kinlaw and D.J. Wonnum need All-SEC-type seasons. Others, like Rick Sandidge and Kingsley Enagbare, need to reach the next level. All of those players, plus newcomers Zacch Pickens and Joseph Anderson, need to make an impact to take blockers away from linebackers like T.J. Brunson.
4. Finding consistent success
Last season was a see-saw ride. The Gamecocks alternated wins and losses all season, and only had consecutive wins against Tennessee and Ole Miss. That has been a problem for a while. The Gamecocks only have 2 3-game winning streaks since 2013, and those included wins over Massachusetts and East Carolina. Looking closer at the difficult schedule, there’s only one 3-game stretch that doesn’t include Alabama, Georgia or Clemson, and that one features a home game against Florida and then at Tennessee. The Gamecocks do get bye weeks before playing Georgia and Clemson. An optimist would note that an upset against Alabama could yield the biggest return as that would likely mean a 5-0 starting entering an off week before traveling to Athens.
5. A continued rash of injuries on defense
If there was one thing the 2018 season was known for, it’s the ongoing injury issues on defense, especially in the secondary. The team received another dose of bad news when it learned that Jaylin Dickerson would be out for the season. It’s the 2nd time in 3 years Dickerson has dealt with that kind of situation. Even one of the more experienced guys, Jamyest Williams, has not finished the past 2 seasons because of injury. Facing a similar outlook is daunting considering 3 veterans are no longer around. Sure, there is an influx of talented freshmen, but can they get up to speed fast enough? It will come down to the 4- and 5-star recruits turning into 4- and 5-star players.