This past season, I was lower on South Carolina than most people. I thought Will Muschamp had inherited a bigger rebuilding project than anticipated.
But this season, I’m higher on the Gamecocks than most people. Maybe the roster wasn’t quite so bare in the wake of Steve Spurrier’s shocking midseason exit in 2015, plus Muschamp has matured since his somewhat dubious tenure at Florida.
More than anything, call me a believer in the skill-position talent currently in Columbia on the offensive side of the ball. Jake Bentley took over at quarterback and was immediately twice as effective as both Perry Orth and Brandon McIlwain. Running back Rico Dowdle, wide receiver Deebo Samuel and tight end Hayden Hurst all return, too.
If Muschamp cements his reputation as a motivator on D, then USC can make a genuine run in the East.
2016 Projection: 2-10 (0-8)
Actual Record: 6-6* (3-5)
* doesn’t include bowl game
As alluded to above, Muschamp lived up to his “Coach Boom” nickname while with the Gators, and it wasn’t always a compliment.
Even his one-season stint back at Auburn as the defensive coordinator in 2015 was less than impressive. The Tigers were statistically better across the board after Muschamp took the gig with the ‘Cocks and was replaced by career assistant Kevin Steele.
In Gainesville, Muschamp periodically gave off the impression that the job was too big for him. He could attract star kids on National Signing Day, but he couldn’t get them to come together as a team on game day. However, so far with South Carolina, he seems a little more relaxed and absolutely more sure of himself. He’s certainly making the most of his second chance.
Still, it’s hard to know what to expect from a Muschamp club obviously leaning on its offense. We’ll find out soon enough.
Whether it was Jalen Hurts at Alabama or Jacob Eason at Georgia or Shea Patterson at Ole Miss, a lot of true freshman QBs made news last season in the SEC.
Sort of like Patterson, Bentley wasn’t supposed to play at all in 2016 — each had his redshirt removed due to unforeseen circumstances — and didn’t take a snap through six contests. But after three straight losses, Muschamp called an audible.
An offense averaging an anemic 14 points per game halfway through the schedule suddenly started scoring 27 — nearly twice as much — with a mature-beyond-his-years Bentley at the controls. While Hurst’s numbers took a bit of a dip following the quick change made at the game’s most important position, Samuel really came on strong down the stretch and had a monster bowl game.
In addition to his natural arm talent, Bentley carries himself with just the right amount of moxie necessary in this conference.
Strengths & Weaknesses
Orth is out of eligibility and McIlwain transferred, so the projected No. 2 passer is the relatively unheralded Michael Scarnecchia.
There is tons of depth in the backfield, though. The two leading rushers for the Gamecocks in 2016, the aforementioned Dowdle and A.J. Turner, were only freshmen. In addition to them, North Carolina transfer Ty’Son Williams generated plenty of buzz during spring practice.
Muschamp’s mere presence this past season helped defensively. In 2015, USC was dead last in the SEC in both yards and points allowed per game. But last year, the ‘Cocks finished seventh and eighth, respectively. To be sure, the return of linebacker Skai Moore is a big boost. On the negative side, replacing pass rusher Darius English will be a challenge.
And don’t forget about special teams. Nobody not named Elliott Fry has made a field goal since 2012, so he’s potentially a major loss.
Week 1: vs. N.C. State (L)*
The Wolfpack could be sneaky competitive this season in the ACC, so a neutral-site affair will be a quality test for both programs.
Week 2: at Missouri (L)
South Carolina tied for second-to-last in the league in touchdown passes allowed a year ago, and the Tigers can sling it.
Week 3: vs. Kentucky (W)
In a battle of up-and-coming clubs in the East, the Gamecocks should be able to light up a Wildcats defense that still has holes.
Week 4: vs. Louisiana Tech (W)
The Bulldogs throw the ball liberally and were second nationally in 2016 in passing offense, so this has track meet written all over it.
Week 5: at Texas A&M (W)
If I’m high on USC, then I’m equally low on the Aggies. Kyle Field might not be so intimidating if the bottom falls out on Kevin Sumlin.
Week 6: vs. Arkansas (L)
Bentley has a chance to be just as good as Austin Allen, who led the SEC in passing yards last season. Allen gets the best of him here, though.
Week 7: at Tennessee (L)
The Volunteers will no doubt have payback on their minds after being upset by the ‘Cocks this past year at Williams-Brice.
Week 8: bye
Week 9: vs. Vanderbilt (W)
I believe South Carolina will build on its late-momentum from 2016, but I don’t have the same feeling about the Commodores.
Week 10: at Georgia (L)
This is the game the Gamecocks have to win if they’re going to be taken seriously in the division. UGA’s superior depth is the difference.
Week 11: vs. Florida (W)
Few things would be sweeter for Muschamp than beating the Gators and then hugging some of his former recruits at his new home.
Week 12: vs. Wofford (W)
A classic cupcake matchup ahead of Rivalry Week, USC should be able to get its starters out of there early and play some walk-ons.
Week 13: vs. Clemson (W)
Throw out the 2016 result. The ‘Cocks usually play their in-state rival tough. The defending national champ doesn’t feature Deshaun Watson anymore, either.
* at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte
2017 Projection: 7-5 (4-4)
Final Standings: 3rd in SEC East
Sort of like last season, I expect South Carolina to start off on the slow side before ramping things up toward the end of 2017.
While Muschamp appears to have righted the ship quickly post-Spurrier, let’s not forget that the Gamecocks were beaten by AAC foe USF in the lowly Birmingham Bowl the last time they put on those garnet-and-black uniforms.
As is usually the case, USC will go as far as Bentley does. Following a three-game winning streak at home to start his career, he was quickly humbled on the road at Florida — in other words, a team with a legit defense. He was even more ineffective closing out the schedule against Clemson, which also fielded a unit full of future pros.
Progress is progress, though. There’s much more accountability in that locker room under Muschamp than there was during Spurrier’s laissez-faire swan song.