Editor’s note: Our annual Crystal Ball series continues with South Carolina and the SEC East. Coming Saturday: Tennessee.

Will Muschamp.

What was your initial reaction to seeing his name?

Was it, “Will Muschamp, who stepped in after Steve Spurrier and cleaned up a mess.” Or maybe your reaction was, “Will Muschamp, who lost 10 consecutive games to Top 25 teams.”

To be honest, my reaction is both. That’s part of the problem.

In the same way that Gus Malzahn had a massive divide among his own fan base, it appears that Muschamp is nearing or at that point himself, albeit for different reasons. Those on the negative side believe Muschamp should be on the hot seat, and others (like myself) are willing to be a bit more patient given what he inherited.

As Muschamp enters Year 4 in Columbia, he does so amidst unique circumstances. Rival Clemson looks stronger than ever, the SEC East conversation is no longer on the Gamecocks as a sleeper contender like it was last year and the schedule couldn’t be more difficult.

So let’s discuss that.

2018 record: 7-6 (4-4), T-4th in SEC East

That brutal schedule

It’s awful. And not in a good way. In a bad, like “don’t drink every time the word gauntlet is said or else your liver will be ruined” type of bad.

Facing Georgia and Clemson in the same year is bad enough these days. But adding Alabama and a trip to Texas A&M makes the Gamecocks’ 2019 slate one of a kind. Don’t forget games against Florida and Mizzou, both of which are also in the preseason Coaches Poll. South Carolina will face 6 of the top 16 teams from last year’s final Associated Press Top 25. Woof. For a team that hasn’t defeated a ranked opponent since 2016, that’s all sorts of daunting.

But here’s the only saving grace — 4 of those 6 games are at Williams-Brice Stadium. That means in a season with relatively low expectations because of that schedule, just a home win against one of those elite teams would go a long way.

Will South Carolina be able to stack up against those teams in the trenches and have that signature victory? That’s a different discussion.

The Ryan Hilinski-Jake Bentley dynamic

“Awkward” isn’t the right word. “Intriguing” is how I’d describe the dynamic when a highly-touted quarterback recruit steps on campus and the multi-year starter is still running the show.

It’s not awkward at South Carolina right now because, despite all the hype surrounding Hilinski’s arrival, Jake Bentley is still the guy. Muschamp has been fiercely loyal to the senior, and barring something drastic, that’s not changing.

So what is drastic? Well, besides the obvious answer, which is Bentley getting hurt. Drastic would be South Carolina dropping to 1-3 with losses to both UNC and Mizzou (and Alabama of course). It would take Bentley playing like the quarterback who couldn’t score a point against Virginia in the Belk Bowl, and not like the guy who carved up Clemson for 500-plus yards.

It would also take Hilinski outperforming Dakereon Joyner in practice. It wasn’t long ago that Joyner was all the rage in this new offense with Bryan McClendon. Reports out of camp are that Joyner is making strides as a thrower and that he’s doing everything he can to make sure he’s the next man up.

If Muschamp is starting Hilinski at any point this season, it’ll be seen as a bit of a desperation play. It’ll shift the focus from why South Carolina isn’t at “contender” status to how exciting it is to be watching the Gamecocks’ quarterback of the future.

Stay tuned.

A ground game would be nice

Just a thought. Seems kind of important in the SEC. In Muschamp’s time in Columbia, the Gamecocks’ run game ranks in conference play were 12th in 2018 and 2017, and 13th in 2016. Yeah, that won’t fly with this schedule.

That explains why the Gamecocks were so aggressive in landing Clemson grad transfer Tavien Feaster, who saw his workload decrease last year with the emergence of Travis Etienne. Even with that workload decrease, Feaster still had almost as many rushing yards (1,109) in the past 2 years as South Carolina’s leading rusher (1,185). That says a lot.

Whether it’s Feaster or Rico Dowdle getting the majority of the carries, there simply needs to be a mediocre run game. As much as I criticize the lack of development of Bentley, it’s tough to flourish as a quarterback when teams don’t have to respect your run game.

The good news? South Carolina returns 3 starters on the offensive line, including Donell Stanley. The Gamecocks have a decent chance of producing their best line yet under Muschamp.

But even though Muschamp is a defensive-minded guy, this is something that needs to turn around because it’s the same weakness that was evident during his time at Florida, too.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. North Carolina (in Charlotte) (W)

Must win. And by “must” I mean Muschamp must win this game because of what will happen if he doesn’t. That is, everyone in South Carolina wonders how UNC in Year 1 of the Mack Brown era and coming off a 2-win season is already better than the Gamecocks. It stays close, but Bentley makes some nice throws down the stretch to put it away.

Week 2: vs. Charleston Southern (W)

Hmmmmm. Methinks this would be a great time for Hilinski’s debut. That is, when the game is out of reach. If he and Joyner both play, that’ll be an interesting development to watch.

Week 3: vs. Alabama (L)

No, I don’t expect a 2010 repeat. Stephen Garcia will be there, but I don’t expect Bentley to turn into what Garcia was for that magical afternoon with the HBC. Like with Georgia last year, the discrepancy at the line of scrimmage shows again and South Carolina is forced to into a 1-dimensional, pass-heavy offense. It’s an Alabama rout this time.

Week 4: at Mizzou (W)

I wonder if Mizzou enters this game a bit overconfident and South Carolina has the better approach. Coming off a week in which they saw Alabama speed, the Gamecocks come out firing on the road. Feaster and Dowdle test Mizzou’s run defense and put the home team in an early hole that proves to be too much to climb out of with Kelly Bryant.

Week 5: vs. Kentucky (L)

I mean, sooner or later, you have to stop penciling this in as a South Carolina win. Five years in a row isn’t a coincidence. This is the game Mark Stoops taps into his best self and plays the disrespect card. Muschamp’s teams averaged 11 points in 3 meetings with Stoops’ defenses. In what many still somehow view as an automatic South Carolina win, Kentucky’s inexperienced defense has its coming out party and makes it 6 consecutive against the Gamecocks.

Week 6: Bye

Week 7: at Georgia (L)

I’ll say this. I think D.J. Wonnum and Javon Kinlaw are better prepared to handle better teams at the line of scrimmage than last year. But against that Georgia offensive line in Sanford Stadium? I can’t see it happening for 60 minutes. Too much of the Dawgs’ ground game sinks South Carolina’s bid to capture a quality win.

Week 8: vs. Florida (L)

Losing the first 3 SEC home games would be tough to swallow. Unfortunately, I think the schedule sets up for exactly that. South Carolina wore down late against Florida last year. I wouldn’t be surprised if Florida’s offense showed up a bit earlier than that. Maybe something like a Jaycee Horn interception of Feleipe Franks gives the crowd life, but again, Muschamp can’t get it done against a quality foe.

Week 9: at Tennessee (L)

If I’m a South Carolina fan, I’m extremely worried about this Week 7-9 stretch. Against 3 division foes, I’d be surprised if the Gamecocks were favored once. Fresh on my mind was the brilliant offensive game plan that Jim Chaney drew up when Georgia visited South Carolina last year. Obviously, 2019 Tennessee isn’t 2018 Georgia, but I get the feeling that Jarrett Guarantano picks apart the secondary late and another back-and-forth game goes against South Carolina.

Week 10: vs. Vanderbilt (W)

If there were ever a defense for Bentley to pick apart, this is it. I’d put my money on this being a shootout. Two of the league’s top receivers (Bryan Edwards and Kalija Lipscomb) should have big days. But I like the chances of South Carolina putting Vandy into too many obvious passing situations.

Week 11: vs. Appalachian State (W)

After 7 consecutive SEC opponents, South Carolina finally runs into a team that it can push around up front. Not only do we get to see Bentley put up big numbers, but we also get a look at Hilinski. An Appalachian State team with a new coaching staff doesn’t quite have the horses to stay on the field with a middle-of-the-road SEC team.

Week 12: at Texas A&M (L)

In a battle of teams that have incredibly difficult schedules, I give A&M the edge. The Aggies have a more proven, balanced offensive attack. A&M played extremely well in College Station in Year 1 of the Jimbo Fisher era. A couple of former LSU coaching staff cohorts struggle to distance themselves from each other, but ultimately, the Aggies wear down the Gamecocks and pour it on late.

Week 13: Bye

Week 14: vs. Clemson (L)

Little brother or not, Clemson is still a significantly better team. That’s true despite all the talent the Tigers lost to the NFL. It doesn’t matter where this game is played, either. Clemson won’t this game by an average of nearly 32 points the past 3 years. With all of that offensive firepower back, I don’t know how South Carolina slows that down.

2019 projection: 5-7 (2-6, 6th in SEC East)


Would this be a fireable year for Muschamp? Missing a bowl game could do that, but I still think 2020 is the year that’ll really determine his future in Columbia.

There’s a good chance that South Carolina is an underdog in 7 or 8 games this year. Seriously. That’s why just getting to 7 wins would be a major accomplishment.

But as of now, I can’t get there. I need to see a running game that can control the clock, I need to see Bentley not make awful, costly decisions at key moments and I need to see Muschamp close the deal against a Top 25 team.

Those 3 things have held South Carolina back from getting back to the levels Spurrier reached. Without some major influx of talent — the No. 17 class is solid but not immediate impact-level — I wonder about how this year’s team will navigate such an unforgiving slate.

Needless to say, a 5-win season wouldn’t exactly earn Muschamp any supporters. But would a 5-win season end his time in Columbia? My guess is no.

Here’s the good news — the last time I picked a team to win 5 games? Last year’s Kentucky squad.