South Carolina football: 5 big questions before toughest stretch
South Carolina is leaving the bye week with some optimism following the dominating win on Sept. 28 over Kentucky. But this is when the key stretch of the season begins.
The Gamecocks’ biggest rivals are ahead, but perhaps most important, how they do against the bottom tier of the SEC East? If the UK game is any indication, there is reason to believe they can salvage a bowl appearance.
However, for coach Will Muschamp to truly quiet the critics, to the extent he can, he needs an upset against the likes of Georgia or Clemson.
Here are the 5 biggest questions for the stretch run:
Can they still make a bowl?
Sitting at 2-3, the Gamcocks need 4 wins to make a bowl game with 7 games remaining. If South Carolina figures to win at Tennessee, and against Vanderbilt and Appalachian State — granted, that may be somewhat of a stretch — that leaves the team needing one win from these games: At Georgia, Florida, at Texas A&M and Clemson.
The Gamecocks will be underdogs in every one of those games, according to ESPN’s FPI; they are regarded as having the best chance to win the Florida game at just 32.6 percent. Odds are not in their favor, but it’s not a complete long shot. South Carolina beat Florida two years ago, and should have last year. And the A&M game could be treated like the Kentucky game as both series have seen the opponent with a five-game winning streak.
Who is South Carolina’s MVP?
DL Javon Kinlaw has contributed in more areas, and tilted momentum more than any other player on the team. His blocked field goal against North Carolina kept the score at 10-3, and he has done nothing but improve since. He has 4 sacks, which is tied for the SEC lead, 3 quarterback hurries, and 14 tackles. Kinlaw passed on the NFL to have a great season, and he has delivered.
The 6-foot-6, 310-pound senior defensive tackle is proving to be a problem for opponents. Kinlaw’s play has been noticed by people with an NFL perspective, and he was recently tabbed a first-round pick, 31st overall, in a CBS Sports mock draft.
What is Ryan Hilinski’s grade?
The freshman couldn’t have had a much better debut, even in a loss to Alabama, than the Charleston Southern game and Alabama game. However, the Missouri start left plenty to be desired as elbow injury concerns overshadowed a disappointing effort.
Even against Kentucky, Hilinski was 15-for-27 passing for 140 yards in a game that was clearly designed to be led by the running game. But South Carolina was also 5-for-15 on third down conversions and on plays Hilinski was directly involved, he was 3-for-12 on converting third downs. Of course, not everything is his fault as there was a sack, and other variables to take into account. A fair grade for Hilinski would be a B.
He has 5 touchdowns and 3 interceptions in 2019 and has largely kept his team in games. Consider the Missouri game — Hilinski pulled the Gamecocks within a field goal on a long TD pass to Bryan Edwards, but the Tigers had a 100-yard pick-6 to seal a victory. Hilinski’s personal family story and highly-touted recruitment changed the narrative that he is a freshman QB, after all.
Can the Gamecocks improve their turnover margin?
The UK game was a blueprint for South Carolina in more ways than one. For starters, the Gameocks had a plus-1 turnover margin. To continue that, they must continue to give the ball to their veteran running backs.
The wide receivers and tight ends have plenty of skill for Hilinski to connect with them for short and safe passing yards. It’s up to offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon to put Hilinski in comfortable situations and lean on the more experienced players around him. They sit with a minus-2 turnover margin, and that’s no way to turn around the season and clinch a bowl berth.
How will they improve third down conversions?
The Gamecocks are 13th in the SEC in third down conversions at just 23-for-68, a 33.8 percent clip. This will be a key stat in these swing games like Florida and Texas A&M. For context, South Carolina was fourth in the SEC last season at 42 percent.
Last year against A&M, the Gamecocks were 2-for-9, and against Florida, they were 7-for-13, but 0-for-5 in the second half as South Carolina gave up a 31-14 lead in the 35-31 loss. Along with the usual targets, this is an area for tight ends Kyle Markway and Nick Muse to step into as key contributors.