South Carolina football: 10 bold predictions for the 2020 season
Coach Will Muschamp is set to start Season 5 at South Carolina, and last year’s disappointing season left him flirting around .500 in his career with the Gamecocks, at 26-25.
Last year, Muschamp said he had his best team, but it stumbled to a 4-8 finish, and despite the Georgia upset, no one is considering the Gamecocks a dark horse contender to win the SEC East, as they once did. Muschamp has exhausted the equity he built up after the 3-win team he inherited following 2015. While recruiting is still solid at multiple positions, the attention now shifts to development as QB Ryan Hilinski and DL Zacch Pickens are entering their sophomore seasons.
Here are 10 bold predictions for the 2020 season:
1. Will Muschamp to receive contract extension
Much was made about Muschamp’s buyout, which last year was pegged at $18 million, but has recently dropped to $13 million. But perhaps on the back burner is the length of the Muschamp contract, which runs through the 2024 season. Because coaches and athletics directors are keenly focused on the recruiting picture, and 4-year window, look for Ray Tanner to extend Muschamp at least a year before the end of the season. Under the original schedule for this season, the Gamecocks could have easily opened 4-0 with a trip to Florida and revenge on their mind. Now, with the Gamecocks dropping Clemson from the schedule, as much as it burns partisan fans, they added Ole Miss and Auburn from the West, both of which are easier to manage on paper than their Upstate rivals.
2. The 6-game losing streak against Texas A&M is snapped
Jimbo Fisher helped jumpstart Muschamp’s career when he helped Muschamp land an interview with then-LSU coach Nick Saban. Muschamp was hired as linebackers coach in 2001. But now Muschamp’s connection with Fisher is through Texas A&M — which has beaten South Carolina 6 consecutive years.
Last year’s 30-6 result in College Station set in stone the Gamecocks’ first bowl absence in 4 seasons. A year ago, the Gamecocks came into the game deflated after the shocking loss to Appalachian State.
Getting this game on Nov. 7, after the bye week, is key to a win.
3. Xavier Legette will be a breakout star
With the departure of Bryan Edwards as the No. 1 receiver, much will be made about Shi Smith filling his role. But if the Gamecocks will truly make a step forward, reach a bowl game and remain in the SEC East race deep into the season, they need multiple weapons on offense.
Enter Xavier Legette. Legette has taken some time to transition to the receiver position after he played quarterback at a small high school in South Carolina (Mullins). Legette appeared in 11 games last year and got his feet wet with solid contributions against Vanderbilt (3 catches and a touchdown) and App State (5 catches). Remember his measurables from recruiting. Those will show up in spades this season.
4. Ernest Jones will be a top 3 linebacker in the SEC
Jones has quietly grown into a strong leader. He’s a vocal leader with the media and in the locker room and produces. Last year, he was 5th in the SEC with 97 tackles, a dramatic jump from the previous season when he appeared in just 5 games with 16 tackles. Jones, 6-2 and 230 pounds, is consistently in the right position, and the way Muschamp’s defense is designed, plays funnel to Jones. But look at the experienced linebackers returning across the SEC, and there aren’t 3 better than Jones.
5. The defensive front will product a double-digit sack artist
The defensive line is facing a massive turnover with the departures of D.J. Wonnum and Javon Kinlaw. Aaron Sterling (pictured above), who does return, shared the team lead last year with 6 sacks. As Zacch Pickens draws more attention from offensive lines, not to mention Jordan Burch, Sterling will have more room to roam. Keep in mind, he didn’t even record a sack in 7 games last season, including against the likes of Georgia, Tennessee and Clemson. In 4 of the past 5 seasons, at least 3 SEC players recorded double-digit sacks. Granted, they all had at least 12 games. But let’s go ahead and put Sterling in that group for 2020.
6. Mike Bobo will help Ryan Hilinski improve
The long-time offensive coordinator, and new OC in Columbia, Bobo immediately pointed out that Hilinski struggled with poor footwork. Hilinski last season showed some promise, largely against Alabama, before injuries limited his growth. He was last in the SEC in yards per attempt (5.8), 11th in passing efficiency, and 13th in QB rating (113.37).
It wasn’t for lack of opportunity, either. Only 2 SEC QBs attempted more passes than Hilinski (406), and Kellen Mond (419) and Joe Borrow (527) played at least 2 more games. Hilinski has spoken strongly about improving, and his elbow and knee injuries are behind him. Bobo has received criticism for his play-calling at Georgia, and his lackluster success at Colorado State. But he’ll be just the medicine that Hilinski needs to turn the corner.
7. A running back will rush for 1,000 yards
Breaking the 1,000-yard mark rushing as a freshman is difficult, but not unheard of in the SEC. In recent years, Nick Chubb, Todd Gurley, T.J. Yeldon, Leonard Fournette and Damarea Crockett have all done it.
MarShawn Lloyd would have been a prime candidate in 2020, even with a reduced schedule. This is a sore subject among Gamecock faithful because this stat in general, never mind a freshman, has been a desert since Mike Davis gained 1,183 yards in 2013.
The program has only had 5 1,000-yard rushing seasons since George Rogers’ Heisman year in 1980. The offensive line has plenty of experience and talent, and the likes of Kevin Harris, JUCO newcomer ZaQuandre White, or Rashad Amos are capable. Anchored by Dylan Wonnum, this is widely expected to be the best offensive line in the Muschamp era at South Carolina.
8. A new DBU raises eyebrows
Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu burst on the scene last season as a dynamic and talented cornerback duo who could back up their trash talk. Mukuamu made a splash against Georgia with 3 picks, but only finished with 4; Horn didn’t register any picks. But between Horn’s aspirations for the NFL, and Mukuamu possibly moving to safety if the secondary needs to be shuffled, look for these interception numbers to rise. LSU and Florida are typically mentioned as DBU candidates, but the Gamecocks have made their presence felt over the years, such as when Stephon Gilmore and D.J. Swearinger roamed the secondary.
9. The revamped coaching staff makes a difference
The staff overhaul wasn’t completely Muschamp’s idea, as some assistants went for promotions on their own, such as with NFL teams. But the reality is only 3 coaches — offensive line coach Eric Wolford, outside linebackers coach Mike Peterson and defensive coordinator/defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson — return in the same roles as they had in 2019.
Keep in mind that Wolford and Bobby Bentley return to roles they had in 2018 when the Gamecocks averaged more than 30 points a game, over 150 yards rushing and over 425 yards of total offense per game.
10. Adam Prentice is the secret weapon for the retooled Bobo offense
Prentice likely won’t light up the box score, but look for him to be an intangible superstar as a transfer from Bobo’s old program. Two reasons: his versatility with 18 rushing attempts and 18 catches last season and his familiarity with the Bobo playbook coming from Colorado State. The 6-foot, 236-pounder was named 1 of 10 accountability team leaders and was also a captain as a junior. He also began his career as a walk-on. The Gamecocks have long needed more consistency out of the backfield, and Prentice will help them get there.