SDS Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for South Carolina football in 2018
Bowl games have a way of shaping perspective.
Had South Carolina continued its woeful offensive start against Michigan in the Outback Bowl, we might be having a different conversation about the Gamecocks right now. Instead, we saw them roar back against one of the nation’s best defenses en route to their ninth victory of the year.
Bryan McClendon shed the interim offensive coordinator tag and suddenly, the outlook for an offense that was ranked No. 99 in scoring has all the optimism in the world. I’ll get to more of that later, though.
It’s because of South Carolina’s fourth-quarter performance against Michigan that I believe the chatter about a potential Week 2 upset against Georgia gained offseason traction. It’s an easy game to look ahead to considering both are expected to finish atop the East division.
But we’ll see if post-Outback bowl hype will carry well into the 2018 regular season, or if that’ll feel like a distant memory.
2017 regular-season record: 8-4 (5-3)
The new offense
McClendon is now the offensive coordinator, former Ole Miss offensive coordinator Dan Werner was brought in as the quarterbacks coach and now the offense is ready to explode … right?
That’s the hope of South Carolina fans following what was clearly a frustrating offensive year, especially after Deebo Samuel went down in Week 3. South Carolina hit the 30-point mark just 3 times in SEC play. In the final 6 regular-season games, Jake Bentley didn’t have a single game with multiple touchdown passes. Might I add that only 2 of those opponents went to bowl games, and FCS Wofford wasn’t one of them.
So now, Gamecocks fans are ready to turn the page. They’re ready to see the step that Bentley was supposed to take last year. Perhaps with Samuel’s return, a more-up tempo offense and a better supporting cast, Bentley will be put in better positions to succeed. McClendon’s system should take pressure off him to go through his progressions, and it’ll instead rely on his ability to make reads at the line of scrimmage.
We got a glimpse of what the offense will look like in the spring game. And while it looked solid, it wasn’t quite old-school Oregon as ESPN’s Tom Luginbill suggested.
But given the fact that Bentley has an extremely talented group of receivers with the likes of OrTre Smith, Shi Smith, Bryan Edwards and Samuel, there’s reason to believe that this offense can far exceed its weak 2017 showing. Speaking of that …
A healthy Deebo Samuel, please
It’s easy to point at Bentley’s 2017 struggles and link it to Samuel’s injury. The timing of losing a weapon like Samuel in the Kentucky game obviously proved to be costly. We saw just how valuable he was when he was out for the final 10 games. Unfortunately, that’s become all-too-familiar in his career.
It’s somewhat baffling to think that Samuel has played in basically 1.5 seasons as he enters 2018. On the field, he might be the most dangerous player in the country. But before Samuel competes for the Paul Hornung Award (the nation’s most versatile player), he has to stay healthy.
All of those lower body injuries can take a toll. One of the things to watch will be Samuel’s usage. As much as the Gamecocks would love to get him involved in some gadget plays in the running game, they could hold off to preserve him. We already know that Samuel isn’t planning on fair-catching any kickoffs with that new rule. I mean, why would he?
Above all else, South Carolina fans just want to see him build off the connection that he and Bentley developed. In a small sample size in the beginning of 2017, it looked like they were both in store for huge seasons. Samuel’s injury changed all of that.
Can they pick up where they left off? For the sake of being entertained on a given Saturday, let’s hope so.
Is Will Muschamp one of the top 3-4 SEC coaches?
That’s an intriguing question to ask about Muschamp as he enters Year 3 in Columbia. He didn’t win SEC Coach of the Year because of the year that Kirby Smart had, but next to Smart and Nick Saban, are we sure there are many better in the conference?
Think about the situation that Muschamp inherited. Steve Spurrier left in the middle of 2015 because he lost direction of the program. Climbing out of a 3-win hole ain’t easy in the SEC. All Muschamp has done is improve the Gamecocks’ win total by 3 games in each of his first 2 seasons. Keep in mind that feat coincided with Clemson’s rise atop the college football world.
Regardless of what happens in 2018, that’s impressive.
But that’s the great question. How does Muschamp’s reputation change in 2018? There are plenty of people who would reference Muschamp winning SEC Coach of the Year in his second season at Florida, and then going 10-13 and being out of a job 2 years later. If Muschamp can take a step up in Year 3 this time, you’ll see more recognition for the job he has done rebuilding a program that was left in shambles a short time ago.
Week 1: vs. Coastal Carolina (W)
Poor Coastal Carolina. With the Georgia game the following week, there might not be a single Week 1 opponent in America who’s been more overlooked this offseason. It would probably help if the Chanticleers weren’t coming off a 3-win season in the Sun Belt.
Week 2: vs. Georgia (L)
I can’t get there yet. I know it’s at Williams-Brice, and I know the atmosphere is going to be electric. I’m just not willing to say that South Carolina can match Georgia in the trenches for 60 minutes. Kirby Smart’s defense isn’t exactly a fun thing to test drive a new offense against. Georgia has the advantage at the quarterback position, too. Jake Fromm won’t be fazed by the big-time road atmosphere or what’s at stake. He helps the Dawgs overcome a hostile environment and fuels a key early-season win to kick off SEC play.
Week 3: vs. Marshall (W)
This is actually a little tricker than one might think for South Carolina. Marshall returns 81 percent of its defensive production from a group that ranked No. 17 in scoring defense in 2017. The Herd won’t look like Georgia, but this isn’t exactly Coastal Carolina, either. The Gamecocks start off slow offensively, but their defense prevents them from trailing and they pull away late.
Week 4: at Vanderbilt (W)
Prediction: Samuel goes off. He shakes he rust off after the first few games and does something that goes viral. Maybe he returns the opening kick for a touchdown, or he and Bentley connect on an 80-yard touchdown. This just feels like a game when Vanderbilt doesn’t have an answer to stop someone with Samuel’s skill set. He shines in a big way and gets the Gamecocks on the board in the SEC.
Week 5: at Kentucky (W)
I know, I know. The streak. Kentucky has South Carolina’s number, right? They do, but one reason South Carolina won so many close games last year was because of its ability to stop the run. To slow down Kentucky, you have to slow down Benny Snell. Even though the Gamecocks’ defense has a massive hole to fill without Skai Moore, the likes of D.J. Wonnum and T.J. Brunson are capable of plugging the gaps against a one-dimensional offense like Kentucky. It might go down to the wire, but give me the Gamecocks to end the skid.
Week 6: vs. Mizzou (W)
I don’t think the Tigers’ defense will be able to handle the speed that South Carolina wants to play at. This will be when we see McClendon’s style really pay off in a big way. Bentley delivers perhaps his best game of the season in the new offense and outshines Drew Lock.
Week 7: vs. Texas A&M (L)
A mini road upset could be in store before South Carolina hits the bye week. Coming off a few wins to start SEC play, South Carolina gets humbled by a Texas A&M squad that is coming into its own defensively. A month and a half into learning Mike Elko’s system, the Aggies come up with their best defensive performance yet. The Aggies control the ball late with Trayveon Williams and squeak out a gritty road win.
Week 8: Bye
Week 9: vs. Tennessee (W)
The A&M loss gives South Carolina a chance to re-evaluate heading into the bye week. Fortunately, scoring points against Tennessee proves to be a much easier task than it was last year in Knoxville. This winds up being a career day for Rico Dowdle, who is going to be a huge part of this offense. He goes off to get South Carolina back in the win column.
Week 10: at Ole Miss (L)
I have a not-so-sneaky feeling that this one turns into a shootout. Despite South Carolina’s offensive improvements by Week 10, that favors the Rebels. This could be a game in which South Carolina falls behind by a couple scores early, and instead of trusting Dowdle to gash the Rebels’ horrendous run defense, the Gamecocks fall in love with the pass. That costs them a shot to win a tricky road matchup in Oxford.
Week 11: at Florida (W)
Ah, the battle for second place in the East. I gave the nod to South Carolina in Muschamp’s second trip back to Gainesville. Why? I think following a rough defensive showing, Muschamp gets that unit firing on all cylinders in The Swamp. South Carolina plays the style of game it’s more comfortable in, and instead puts the pressure on the defense to take care of business late. Muschamp gets his best win of the year to finish SEC play.
Week 12: vs. Chattanooga (W)
Three-win FCS teams seem pretty fitting for cupcake week. South Carolina feasts.
Week 13: at Clemson (L)
Again, the thing that’s keeping South Carolina from getting into the same conversation as the Georgias and Clemsons is the battle in the trenches. The Gamecocks aren’t imposing their will on teams yet. That’s what Clemson figures to do with that historically talented defensive line. Clemson could easily be playing for an undefeated regular season at this point, not that the Tigers never need motivation against their in-state rivals. I’ll take them to stymie the Gamecocks’ offense.
2018 Projection: 8-4 (5-3)
Final Standings: 2nd in SEC East
Would 8 wins be a major disappointment? I don’t think so. We’ve learned in college football that the fans who scoff at an 8-win regular season are usually a bit unrealistic about their expectations.
For the record, I do think South Carolina will be better than they were last year. Just getting Samuel back and healthy would probably prompt me to say that. And as a result, I think we see improvements from the offense, though I don’t expect it to suddenly become a top-25 unit.
For everyone who assumes South Carolina is due for another significant bump in wins because of the wealth of experience returning, I’d say this: Remember that the Gamecocks were also 6-1 in games decided by 1 possession last year. Long term, that’s not sustainable. I don’t expect them to be that good in close games again.
On the flip side, they shouldn’t have to play in quite as many nail-biters this year. There are a handful of games in SEC play that the Gamecocks should roll, regardless of if they’ve made massive offensive improvements.
This roster is talented and capable of making some noise in the SEC. But as for taking down the big boys and getting to Atlanta? That sounds a bit too optimistic.
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