Don’t sleep on South Carolina in the SEC East this season
Unlike its western counterpart, the SEC East is not cloaked in the shadow of an indomitable foe. Although it’s considered the lesser of the conference’s divisions, the East is often undecided until the final week of the college football season.
Entering 2017, the familiar trio of Florida, Georgia and Tennessee are viewed as the primary contenders for the division crown. Kentucky surprised fans and pundits alike last season and has a talented defense and a potent run game, making the Wildcats a popular dark horse pick this fall.
All four are logical choices, and a good argument could be made for any of them to get to Atlanta. But there is a fifth team that warrants consideration, and it’s one that might be among the top three challengers in the East.
South Carolina is the true sleeper team in the SEC East for 2017.
This notion might not come as a major surprise to a few SEC fans. It’s not the hot-take equivalent of an unseen countertop corner that leaves a hip bruise for weeks, but for many, South Carolina, which finished 6-7 last season, isn’t in the conversation.
Will Muschamp’s first year was truly a tale of two halves. The Gamecocks limped out of the gate to a 2-4 start while averaging just 14 points. Although the defense was a pleasant surprise, allowing just over 20 points per game, a revolving door at quarterback held back the offense significantly.
South Carolina’s fortunes changed when Muschamp changed quarterbacks. Jake Bentley’s steady play, coupled with the return of some key players from injury, helped the Gamecocks end the regular season on a 4-2 run.
Skeptics can point to a much easier second-half schedule, which included games against UMass, Missouri and Western Carolina, as the result of the improved record. That helped, but on-field improvement and an easier schedule aren’t mutually exclusive.
Last season is in the past, however, so what makes the Gamecocks a threat in 2017? Bentley, who completed over 65 percent of his passes for 1,420 yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions in his first year, should be even better as a sophomore.
Former Alabama quarterback turned analyst Greg McElroy ranked Bentley the best quarterback in the East, ahead of Georgia’s Jacob Eason.
Bentley will have a tremendous set of skill players around him, too.
Sophomore running back Rico Dowdle broke out during the final nine games of his freshman year and will be joined in the backfield by former North Carolina back Ty’Son Williams, who dominated the Gamecocks’ spring game.
Deebo Samuel is a dynamic receiver, and Bryan Edwards possesses the speed to get behind any secondary. True freshmen Shi Smith and OrTre Smith will be added to the mix, and Randrecous Davis can be an impact player after taking a redshirt season in 2016.
What will really set South Carolina’s offense apart is 6-5, 250-pound tight end Hayden Hurst. The former baseball player was a walk-on before becoming one of the top tight ends in the SEC last year. In 2017, Hurst looks poised to become one of the best players in the country at his position.
With that type of offensive firepower, the Gamecocks might have the most complete set of skill players in the SEC East. Finding the end zone should come more easily this fall. Last season, USC averaged a league-low 20 points per game, though they topped 30 four times with Bentley under center. They averaged 30-plus points for five consecutive seasons from 2010-14.
The offensive line will need to be much improved from last season, when it surrendered an SEC-high 41 sacks. Four starters return, however, so perhaps that experience will help improve matters.
Because of the anticipated level of talent on South Carolina’s offense, its defense is the default question mark heading into the fall.
Last year, the Gamecocks improved across the board on defense compared to 2015. Muschamp, who has long been considered one of the best defensive minds in the game, surely had something to do with that.
There is talent, but depth could be an issue, especially at linebacker. Still, with players like Skai Moore, Bryson Allen-Williams and Chris Lammons, the cupboard is far from bare.
Replacing Darius English, who had nine sacks as a senior, will be difficult, but Muschamp deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to building defenses. Florida has enjoyed the residual effect of his recruiting ability over the past couple of years, and Muschamp has recruited well since arriving in Columbia.
Incoming freshmen Javon Kinlaw and Jamyest Williams should push for playing time immediately and could become impact players in their first seasons.
When there are questions on defense, Muschamp is one of the best coaches at figuring out the answers. In his first season as Florida’s head coach, the Gators allowed 20.3 points per game. The following year, they allowed an average of 14.5. If he can help South Carolina shed nearly a touchdown off its average, the Gamecocks will be among the SEC’s elite defenses.
Of course, there’s a lot that can also go wrong for South Carolina. Without the depth that many other SEC East contenders have, the Gamecocks can’t afford to have multiple injuries. They will also depend on several young, albeit talented, players at a few positions.
The SEC East doesn’t have a team that is free of blemishes, however. Based purely on potential, South Carolina is a team that nobody can afford to sleep on.