South Carolina football: 5 things I want to see Saturday at Texas A&M
Frustration is at a high point around Columbia as South Carolina has to sweep the final 2 games in order to reach a bowl game with the backdrop of a struggling offense and an increasingly widening portion of the fan base upset with coach Will Muschamp.
While the Gamecocks’ freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski finds his footing as defenses adjust to him, the once-dependable running game has all but vanished, with just 21 yards last week in the App State loss and 78 yards against Tennessee.
Muschamp has said on both accounts that the coaching staff must do more to help Hilinski and they must be more creative with personnel and schemes to restart the running game.
The concern, however, is this is a storm cloud we have seen before, such as when Muschamp was in his 3rd season at Florida in 2013. The Gators lost DL Dominique Easley and QB Jeff Driskel to season-ending injuries, among a group of 5 season-ending injuries during a 4-8 season that also included a loss to Georgia Southern. The Gamecocks have 4 season-ending injuries this season.
Can they salvage the season Saturday?
Here are 5 things I want to see at Texas A&M:
Ryan Hilinski’s improvement
It’s become clear that the more Hilinski passes the ball, the chances of a Gamecocks’ win goes down. In the past 2 losses, Hilinski has attempted 57 and 51 passes against App State and Tennessee. In their 4 wins, Hilinski has had fewer than 35 attempts, and in 2 of those games, he’s had fewer than 28 attempts. There have been dropped passes and receivers who run sloppy routes, but also times where it appears Hilinski is throwing the ball too hard, or at least doesn’t have the touch needed.
Muschamp has consistently defended Hilinski when questions about the passing game came up weeks ago, and even this week, he maintained on the SEC teleconference, that Hilinski, “has continued to improve incrementally each week. We have to help Ryan more.”
Someone besides Bryan Edwards step up
Edwards seemingly ties or breaks a school record every week, but especially in the passing game, there hasn’t been a consistent second player to step up and contribute. WR Shi Smith is expected to return this week and has the potential to do that. The other candidates are TEs Traevon Kenion, KeShawn Toney and perhaps most capable is Kyle Markway. There’s also Xavier Legette, who has caught a TD pass this season. Markway, Smith and Legette have combined for five touchdowns this season.
The bottom line is that to win an SEC road game, there needs to be multiple weapons in the passing game.
Road game reaction
The Gamecocks have just 4 road games this season, and like many other areas, they have appeared all over the map. The noon kickoff at Georgia was no problem, obviously, but the weather at Missouri and the environment at Neyland Stadium in Tennessee were dramatically different. Will the Kyle Field atmosphere at night for a true freshman be a factor? After all, the Aggies are coming off a bye week and have very difficult road games ahead at Georgia and at LSU, so this might be the most reasonable shot a victory remaining in their regular season.
Can Muschamp do anything to calm fan criticism?
It might be an inspired opening to the game, or a key halftime adjustment like the Gamecocks made against Kentucky to spring a touchdown, but Muschamp — even without a win — must do something to at least alter the narrative that his future is in doubt, whether it be this season or in 2020.
He has done it when questions are directed about staff changes, and he responded that his coaching staff has done things no other coach has done at South Carolina in the same time period to start a tenure. Can he make a difference on the field or in the locker room to provide something to hang a hat on?
Is the streak a trend or a coincidence?
Similarly to Kentucky and Tennessee, with the Gamecocks on both sides, there is a 5-game winning streak in this series held by Texas A&M. The question is if this is a trend or coincidence. Muschamp, like many other coaches, often says these kinds of streaks don’t carry over from year to year in terms of how the individual game plays out. However, like the Tennessee series, this one is close. Three of the past 4 games have been decided by 7 points or less.
If the Gamecocks win, it would be historic, not only because they’re 11-point underdogs, but it would be the Gamecocks’ first win in the state of Texas in 62 years. Carolina’s only win in 6 previous contests in the Lone Star State was a 27-21 win over Texas in Austin in 1957.