If South Carolina beats Kentucky, there's another legitimate threat in the East
I don’t like to make sweeping declarations in mid-September.
Far too often, the sample size is too small. We still haven’t seen how injuries and adjustments will impact a team. The amount of real adversity teams face in the first three weeks is, well, limited.
But there are extenuating circumstances.
For example, nobody is saying “I need to see more out of Alabama in order to put them in the national title conversation.” And if they are, tell them to stop. That’s just wrong.
There’s another declaration that I feel is worth making, weekend result pending.
IF South Carolina beats Kentucky this weekend (I capitalized “if” for a reason), it’s fair to say the Gamecocks are a legitimate threat to win the SEC East and get to Atlanta.
Does that seem too bold for a team that won just six games last year? Absolutely. But “bold” and “stupid” are two different things, especially as it relates to South Carolina.
For what it’s worth, nobody is overlooking Kentucky, despite the fact that South Carolina is a 6.5-point favorite to take care of business. The Wildcats are an improved squad themselves, and there are still plenty of people who believe they could shake things up in the East.
But South Carolina will be in prime position to threaten the likes of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee.
Why so high on the Gamecocks already?
Well, the quarterback situation has a lot to do with that. As in, South Carolina finally has its answer at that position.
The Jake Bentley bandwagon only picked up steam with his first two outings of the season. Bentley and Deebo Samuel, who Will Muschamp believes is “absolutely” a Heisman Trophy contender, look like one of the SEC’s best 1-2 punches. Throw in Hayden Hurst’s presence, and South Carolina could easily finish with one of the league’s top offenses.
And yes, South Carolina looks like it has a better offense than Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. Many thought that could be a possibility in the preseason.
But it’s the defensive side of the ball where South Carolina really has exceeded expectations.
Remember when everyone thought Missouri and South Carolina would break the scoreboard? Well, Missouri put up a whopping 13 points. At home. That was a game plan executed to near perfection by South Carolina’s defense.
The Skai Moore-led Gamecocks defense certainly doesn’t look like it’ll be a liability like it was at times in 2016. South Carolina might not see a tougher defensive test all season than the one it saw at Missouri last week. (Clemson — SC’s late-season rival — is still somewhat of an offensive mystery.) Kentucky certainly won’t put up the same kind of fight.
So there’s one more thing.
Let’s consider what South Carolina could be looking at IF the Kentucky win happens. The Gamecocks would have not one, not two, but three wins against Power 5 teams already. How many other SEC teams would be able to say that?
If any team goes 3-0 in its first three Power 5 matchups, it should be considered a threat to win the division. And I’m not just talking about a team that could stay within a couple games of the division lead all season. The Gamecocks could easily set the tone for a division that might not have a 10-game winner in the regular season.
Why can’t South Carolina win nine games and go to Atlanta? It doesn’t have quarterback issues like all three East favorites. It doesn’t have crossover matchups with Alabama, Auburn or LSU. Instead, the Gamecocks have Arkansas and Texas A&M, both of which look like complete messes right now.
South Carolina might not be on Clemson’s level, but it doesn’t have to be to win the East. Shoot, it didn’t even look like Auburn was on Clemson’s level.
We don’t know how much the Gamecocks could improve by the time that regular season finale rolls around. The upside for Bentley is still there, and there’s reason to believe the defense could be noticeably better by season’s end.
South Carolina is off to an ideal start. And if the Gamecocks continue that on Saturday, there’s nothing stopping the them from having an ideal finish.