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Here Comes South Carolina

By BJ Bennett
SouthernPigskin.com
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Clearly, the Gamecocks have made room for themselves near the top of the SEC East standings.

The only league teams to finish this past fall winning three of their last four, with a season-ending bowl victory, are the Gamecocks and Alabama.

With spring practice now in the rear-view, the off-season officially begins for South Carolina. Summer approaches with the Gamecocks emerging as a contender in the SEC. This is a program, under head coach Will Muschamp, bolstered by a very real momentum and energy. South Carolina went 6-2 to end last fall, losing only to College Football Playoff participants Clemson and Georgia in that span. Fresh off a dynamic spring session, the Gamecocks deserve to be part of the league-wide narrative this pre-season.

Muschamp has developed a new status quo at South Carolina, a conviction that is proving true in competition on the field and in recruiting. Perhaps fortified from his time at Florida, Muschamp, now in his mid-40s, may be a more a complete coach. This fall will be his seventh year as a head coach in the SEC; those seasons, for lack of a better description, have come with seasoning. Muschamp appears to have found his comfort zone in Columbia. 

Last fall, the Gamecocks hit their stride as Muschamp settled in. In addition to winning nine games, South Carolina was 6-1 in pairings decided by one score or less. Maturing with experience, the Gamecocks were often at their best when everything was on the line. There was a belief in both all that was and all that could be. 

South Carolina, in an Outback Bowl triumph over Michigan to finish the year, with new full-time offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon's calling the plays, scored 23 unanswered points over the afternoon's final 17:25 to start 2018 in an all-out sprint. It was one game, it was one win, but the victory, for the Gamecocks, was about one vision.

"Huge win for our football program. We don't have all the trophies and the tradition and the history, but we've got some grit. We've got some toughness and resolve," Muschamp beamed post-game. "All the arrows are pointing up for us. Our administration is investing in our program, our football operations building, the things that we're doing to be successful. We're going to have those trophies soon, and I'm looking forward to our future."

There is a lot to like with Muschamp's latest team, including an experienced leader and captain at quarterback in junior Jake Bentley. Already, he has 20 career starts under his belt. Bentley ranked second in the conference in completion percentage a year ago, helping South Carolina to wins over Florida, Michigan and NC State. The return of star Deebo Samuel at wide receiver, along with Bryan Edwards, OrTre Smith and Shi Smith, should give the Gamecocks one of the nation's best passing games in McClendon's up-tempo scheme.   

At the three defensive levels, there is a strong foundation with junior end D.J. Wonnum, senior linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams, junior linebacker T.J. Brunson and sophomore defensive back Jamyest Williams. Aggressive and attacking, South Carolina led the SEC and ranked in the national top ten this past season with 28 turnovers forced. The year before Muschamp's arrival, the Gamecocks ranked last in the SEC in scoring defense; last fall, South Carolina ranked in the league's top five.

Expect the Gamecocks to be a trendy team over the summer and deservedly so. South Carolina, on paper at least, looks most-ready to challenge Georgia in the SEC East. There, the Gamecocks will have a chance to make a national statement. 

In one of the more fascinating showdowns on the early college football schedule, South Carolina will welcome the Bulldogs to Williams-Brice Stadium on September 8th; the outcome could ultimately help shape the conference race and the College Football Playoff picture alike. It's very possible that the Gamecocks will be favored in every game except the aforementioned leading into the regular season finale at Clemson. Interestingly, South Carolina has won three of the last four against Georgia in Columbia.

The anticipation is that spring practice, which closed with optimism and excitement, was foreshadowing for this fall. Over 25,000 fans attended the Gamecocks' annual Garnet & Black Game, along with approximately 200 program alumni and iconic former head coach Steve Spurrier, who took part in on-field festivities. Offensive fireworks were on display, but a noticeable team confidence was, too. South Carolina has a clear direction: forward.

Fresh off nine wins, the Gamecocks, still improving, are working towards all that comes next. Contention seems like a real possibility. With at least nine victories this upcoming season, Muschamp would become the only South Carolina coach outside of Spurrier to win a minimum of 18 games in two years.

Clearly, the Gamecocks have made room for themselves near the top of the SEC East standings. South Carolina has won five-of-eight against rivals Florida and Tennessee, both of whom are breaking in new head coaches, and was the lone division foe to hang with Georgia a season ago. The only league teams to finish this past fall winning three of their last four games, with a season-ending bowl victory, are the Gamecocks and defending national champion Alabama.  

South Carolina is anxious for more. After turning heads last fall, the Gamecocks are ready for a run.

BJ Bennett - B.J. Bennett is SouthernPigskin.com's founder and publisher. He is the co-host of "Three & Out" with Kevin Thomas and Ben Troupe on the "Southern Pigskin Radio Network". Email: bj@espncoastal.com / Twitter: @BJBennettSports