Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series continues today with South Carolina. Saturday morning: Tennessee.

It ran its course.

Will Muschamp did some impressive things in South Carolina. He took over a program in need of a significant rebuild, and he led it to 9 wins in Year 2. He recruited at a high level and he developed some defensive studs.

But yeah, it was time for new blood.

That’s easy for me to say as someone who didn’t have to fork over an 8-figure buyout. I say that as a neutral observer who watched the Gamecocks crawl to their third consecutive disappointing season. Muschamp wasn’t going to take the program any further than he took it in 2017, and that became evident.

In stepped Shane Beamer. The son of Frank Beamer has been, by any stretch, a breath of fresh air. He’s an honest, well-traveled, knowledgable football mind who has seemingly won over everyone in Columbia. It’s not that it’s a 180 from Muschamp, but with Beamer comes hope. He has the ties to the glory years with Steve Spurrier, which certainly fueled some of the momentum from former players to make Beamer the successor to Muschamp.

As Beamer would admit, it’s all fun and games before the, um, games. Now is really when we’re gonna find out how well prepared he is to rebuild the Gamecocks and make them relevant in the East again.

Will that happen this year? Or is that too ambitious for a Year 1 coach who inherited a 2-win team that ranks No. 125 out of 127 FBS teams in percentage of returning production?

My guess is the latter. But crazier things have happened.

Let’s talk quarterbacks

Luke Doty’s fall camp injury put a bit of a damper on some buzz he had heading into his first full season as a starter. We don’t know yet if he’ll be back for the opener after getting his foot stepped on. Beamer said that it wasn’t as serious as initially feared, so it sounds as if Doty will be back sooner rather than later.

He better be because the depth is limited. Real limited. Like, it’s so limited that Beamer got grad assistant Zeb Norland to put down the whistle and use his last year of eligibility. Norland played at Iowa State and North Dakota State, so it wasn’t like Beamer rode around campus in a golf cart in search of some answers.

There are still potential options like St. Francis (Pa.) transfer Jason Brown, who has essentially has 1 year of FCS experience. Colten Gauthier could also have a crack at getting the Week 1 start, though that’s not obviously ideal to throw a true freshman into the fire from the jump. Still, though. We’re in August, not late-November.

Doty is expected to be the long-term guy, when healthy. He’ll be asked to manage Marcus Satterfield’s offense and find a way to keep teams honest with his arm. He managed just 1 completion north of 30 yards in his 3 starts, and he averaged 5.7 yards per attempt. It’s not fair to assume he’ll be the same guy with a (relatively) full offseason, but it is at least a question mark. With the loss of Shi Smith, the Gamecocks don’t have a ton of proven pass-catchers outside of Nick Muse.

There are some relatively pedestrian expectations for this passing game — that’s been par for the course in the Playoff era in Columbia — and they’ll drop even more if Doty misses games.

Please let us have South Carolina’s 1-2 punch this year, injury gods

Last year, right when it was looking like MarShawn Lloyd could become an impact true freshman, he tore his ACL. Then Kevin Harris went off.

This year, right when it was looking like Harris was ready for an encore, he was sidelined with a back injury early in fall camp. Does that mean Lloyd will go off?

Whether Harris returns for the opener or not, what seems massive for this South Carolina offense is keeping those guys healthy. That’s expected to be the bread and butter. Maybe it’ll be a little bit like what Kentucky was under previous offensive coordinator Eddie Gran. That is, South Carolina is a run-first team with multiple stud backs and a mobile quarterback.

Does that mean teams will load the box and dare the Gamecocks to throw? Yep. But Harris saw his fair share of that in 2020 and still managed to rack up more rushing yards than any SEC player not named Najee Harris. Still, Kevin Harris and Lloyd could be the most entertaining element of South Carolina in 2021. Fingers crossed that we see them both make their mark in 2021.

It’s hard to imagine this secondary won’t have issues

When you lose an elite corner like Jaycee Horn, that’s tough enough. But multi-year starter Israel Mukuamu is also gone to the NFL, too. And just to make matters worse, Kansas transfer and potential Horn replacement Karon Prunty entered the transfer portal shortly after the start of fall camp. It doesn’t help that part-time 2020 starter Cam Smith is still working his way back from a broken bone in his foot.

What does that mean? South Carolina is asking a lot of some first-time starters at corner.

That includes Darius Rush, who has been mostly a special teams guy until he was needed after all the opt-outs late last season. It also includes Marcellas Dial, who joined the team from Georgia Military College in December, but has been one of the standouts of camp.

Last year’s group was No. 97 against the pass. Sure, part of that was the late-season opt-outs. But that was with Muschamp, Horn and Mukuamu for the majority of it. Even that group had its moments.

Unless South Carolina’s underrated defensive line can make life much easier on this secondary, it seems destined for a bumpy year.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Eastern Illinois (W)

I’ve been saying it since South Carolina’s injuries started popping up in fall camp — Jimmy Garoppolo and Tony Romo ain’t walkin’ out on that field. In other words, South Carolina should be able to handle an FCS team with or without 2 of its key offensive players.

Week 2: at East Carolina (W)

I’m banking on a Doty return here. If that’s the case, I don’t think South Carolina fans will have to sweat this one out until the very end. This is still a matchup in which that ground game should run all over an East Carolina defense that ranked outside the top 100 in FBS last year. Yes, the Pirates have 91% of last year’s production back, which gives me a bit of pause. But I’ll still bank on JJ Enagbare, Jordan Burch and this South Carolina defensive line to get pressure and prevent the potential upset.

Week 3: at Georgia (L)

Over/under 145 sideline shots of Muschamp? I’ll take the over. I’ll also take Georgia to roll past South Carolina, despite all the references to the 2019 collapse. Between those two things and Beamer’s days as a Georgia assistant, there are no shortage of storylines. That’ll be nice for the broadcast crew when the Gamecocks’ offense can’t string together scoring drives in a blowout win for the home team. South Carolina’s 2-0 buzz simmers down in Athens.

Week 4: vs. Kentucky (W)

If you’re going to be a second-place team in the East, this is the game you cannot afford to lose if you’re Kentucky. But I can’t help but think Beamer, with his offensive players perhaps back and full healthy, has his best win of 2021. Kentucky’s run defense struggles to handle the 2-headed monster of Harris and Lloyd, and Doty keeps the chains moving on 3rd down with conversions to Muse. The Wildcats’ defense gets worn down and South Carolina holds off a late push for an upset win in Columbia.

Week 5: vs. Troy (W)

Don’t sleep on this being a challenging, 4-quarter game. Troy held its own in the Sun Belt last year and nearly pulled off a massive upset of national darling Coastal Carolina to close the regular season. The Trojans return 93% of last year’s production, which ranks No. 6 in FBS. But again, South Carolina should still be able to win the battle in the trenches. Dakereon Joyner’s first receiving score of 2021 puts away a pesky Troy team.

Week 6: at Tennessee (L)

I went back and forth on this one. You could make a case that South Carolina’s offense should keep that Tennessee defense on the field too long and it’ll be worn down, especially if the Vols don’t convert some long(-ish) scoring drives. But I think Heupel will attack, attack and then attack some more. That Gamecocks’ secondary will have a rough showing on the road. Instead of getting out to an early lead and controlling the time of possession, South Carolina can’t match Tennessee’s chunk plays. Heupel wins this battle of first-year coaches.

Week 7: vs. Vanderbilt (W)

One day, it’s not crazy to think that Clark Lea’s defense will feast on one-dimensional offenses. This won’t be that day. Lloyd has the biggest game of his young career and gives South Carolina fans all sorts of clips for his pre-2022 hype video. Consider this another game in which the Gamecocks are fortunate to have some dudes in the trenches.

Week 8: at Texas A&M (L)

I don’t think South Carolina’s 2021 roster is built to hang with the big boys, especially if depth issues are tested late in the season. The Gamecocks will struggle with Mike Elko’s defensive strategy of loading the box and daring them to throw. That proves to be a challenging formula, and against a solid run defense, Harris and Lloyd can’t keep the South Carolina offense on the field. After a promising start to SEC play, Beamer goes into the bye needing to find some answers in the passing game.

Week 9: Bye

Week 10: vs. Florida (L)

I think the Gamecocks jump out to an early lead and Florida’s offense has a slow start coming off the East-hopes crushing loss to Georgia. Harris, who hit the century mark in The Swamp last year, has another big day. But like last year, the Gamecocks are too one-dimensional and eventually, Florida takes over. Kaiir Elam hauls in his first career pick-6, Jeremiah Moon gets a strip sack of Doty and the Gators turn an early scare into a 2-score win on the road.

Week 11: at Mizzou (L)

South Carolina falls behind early thanks to some methodical, composed Mizzou touchdown drives. That proves to be too tall of a task on the road for a Gamecocks offense that isn’t built to overcome 2-score deficits. For the second consecutive week, Connor Bazelak looks like he’s over the disappointing Vandy showing. Unfortunately for South Carolina, a struggling secondary doesn’t have any answers in sight during the home stretch of the season. A winnable game slips away from Beamer.

Week 12: vs. Auburn (L)

A revenge game for Auburn should be a relatively favorable matchup at Jordan-Hare. I do wonder about Enagbare and Jordan Strachan becoming mainstays in the backfield, but as long as Tank Bigsby is still healthy, I think Auburn keeps it simple with the ground game. Will this be the Bigsby vs. Harris game to end the popular preseason debate once and for all? So many things can happen to stand in the way of that. I don’t think the Gamecocks will stand in the way of Auburn’s last-ditch effort to make a bowl game while South Carolina’s postseason chances take a massive hit.

Week 13: vs. Clemson (L)

Clemson’s defensive line is going to be a problem this year. Like, potentially the strength of a national championship team. That’s bad news for Doty, who can’t find any throwing windows against a Tigers front that gets home consistently with a 4-man rush. This should be the floor game for Beamer in Year 1 in this rivalry. With depth limited against a dominant Clemson team, the Gamecocks fall by 3-plus scores for the 5th consecutive time and 7th overall.

2021 projection: 5-7 (2-6), 6th in East


Here’s the thing. I know you’re looking that that “5” more than any other number. Would getting to a bowl game solidify Beamer knows what he’s doing? You bet.

But I’d argue he can go 5-7 and still have a ton of momentum as a head coach, even if it does include a 5-game losing streak to close the year.

I know, I know. That would be extremely disappointing. I worry about the depth, especially in the passing game. And while I think the defensive line should be solid, I think in today’s game, teams are still going to try to stretch the field. In the latter half of the schedule, I think South Carolina has too many reminders that it isn’t built to rally back from a multi-score deficit.

So where’s the momentum? Well, the offense should improve down the stretch, even if the final score doesn’t show it. I expect Beamer to say and do all the right things, which includes putting together a top-15 class for 2022. That would be a sign of progress, even if there is the impression that the wheels fell off late after a 5-2 start.

Keep your head up, South Carolina fans. Better days are coming. Soon.