Take the second half of the Birmingham Bowl, and there is plenty to be excited about for the Gamecocks entering next season. Most notably, it is the young roster and up-and-coming playmakers on offense. But there’s also a key player on defense set to return, and an improving secondary.

Overall, here are seven reasons South Carolina should feel optimistic about 2017:

  1. Jake Bentley’s development: No other player could receive as much credit as quarterback Jake Bentley for the team’s turnaround after he, in late October, took a 2-4 team and led it to four wins and bowl eligibility over the next five weeks. Through his first five starts, Bentley  completed 66 percent of his pass attempts for nearly 1,000 yards and six touchdowns. The Gamecocks scored 30-plus three times in six games with Bentley at the helm after not scoring more than 20 in the first six. Given a full offseason of development, Bentley should pick up where he left off.
  2. Running back depth: Along with Rico Dowdle, A.J. Turner and David Williams, North Carolina transfer Tyson Williams will add another option in the backfield. Dowdle wrestled the starting job away at the end of the season, but Turner played well in preseason camp and beat out junior David Williams at tailback, starting four of the first five games. Dowdle started the final five games of the regular season. Tyson Williams (6-foot, 220 pounds) was South Carolina’s scout team running and will add speed to Dowdle’s power. What’s more, Caleb Kinlaw, a former Wisconsin running back, will be in the mix after coming from Pearl River Community College.
  3. Offensive identity: The first half of the season saw plenty of shuffling on offense, including three starting quarterbacks, three starting tailbacks, and injuries along the offensive line and at receiver. Things settled a little when Bentley took the helm at quarterback and Dowdle became the primary runner. Three of the team’s four best offensive performances and the Tennessee upset came after that. So the Gamecocks are expected to return 10 starters, almost all of its rushing and receiving production, and more than 70 percent of it passing yards.
  4. Skai Moore to fill some holes on defense: Former all-SEC linebacker Skai Moore is expected to return from a herniated disc in his neck that sidelined him for all of 2016. He should anchor the front seven after leading the team in tackles for three straight seasons. He needs 47 tackles to move into the school’s all-time top-10. The secondary also loses just a few part-time starters, so that could be a strength, too.
  5. A manageable schedule: With games against N.C. State in Charlotte, at Missouri, and at home against Kentucky and Louisiana Tech, the Gamecocks could easily begin the campaign 3-1 or even 4-0. While they travel to Texas A&M and Georgia, they get Arkansas, Florida and Clemson all at home. That’s seven home games and a neutral-site contest in Charlotte where they are 2-0 since 2011.
  6. A strength at tight end: On the heels of a strong season from sophomore tight end Hayden Hurst, who had 42 catches for 530 yards (second among tight ends in the SEC), the Gamecocks have a key recruit in Will Register set to arrive. Register, a South Carolina native, was a Shrine Bowl selection and second team all-USA team by USA TODAY. Register was the first commitment of the 2017 class. He is 6-foot-4, 240 pounds and also had an offer from Clemson. He’s the fifth-best player in the state, as ranked by the 247 Sports Composite, and 16th-best tight end in America.
  7. Youth growing up: South Carolina is expected to compile a top-20 recruiting class, and add that to a returning roster that will lose only one offensive starter — left tackle Mason Zandi. The program’s seven true freshman starters this season tied Maryland, Ole Miss and Texas for most nationally. In some ways, the Gamecocks exceeded expectations and are at least a year ahead by simply getting to Birmingham.