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SEC Season Preview: South Carolina

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Previewing the 2017 South Carolina Gamecocks

Head Coach: Will Muschamp – second year at South Carolina; sixth year overall (34-28 overall, 20-20 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Kurt Roper (second season)

Defensive Coordinator: Travaris Robinson (second season)

2016 Record: 6-7 (3-5 SEC)

Returning Starters: 16 (10 offense, 6 defense)

2017 Schedule

Sept. 2 – vs. N.C. State (Charlotte) (3 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Sept. 9 – at Missouri (7 p.m. ET, ESPN2)
Sept. 16 – KENTUCKY (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Sept. 23 – LOUISIANA TECH

Sept. 30 – at Texas A&M

Oct. 7 – ARKANSAS
Oct. 14 – at Tennessee
Oct. 28 – VANDERBILT

Nov. 4 – at Georgia
Nov. 11 – FLORIDA
Nov. 18 – WOFFORD
Nov. 25 – CLEMSON


What We Know

-The quarterback problem dating back to 2015 has been solved. Sophomore Jake Bentley should have been taking high school calculus last fall, but instead he was leading the Gamecocks to four wins in their final six games to earn a surprising bowl bid. Sure, Clemson and Florida’s defensive fronts overwhelmed the true freshman, but Bentley took a young offense and won two out of three SEC games. Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper kept things simple for Bentley, who connected on 66 percent of his pass attempts with just four interceptions in seven starts.

-The receiving corps is exciting. Bryan Edwards flashed early as a freshman before enduring the expected first-season consistencies in a 44-catch campaign. Deebo Samuel led the Gamecocks with 59 receptions and 783 yards, and he’s back for at least one more year as well. 253-pound Tight end Hayden Hurst may be the best in the conference. Every wide receiver and tight end who caught a pass last season returns, meaning Bentley will have plenty of options to target.

-The secondary should be solid. Senior Chris Lammons is undersized at 5’9”, but he’s made a pretty solid college career for himself with technique and tackling skills. His running mate is also back in Jamarcus King, who quickly seized a starting role last year after transferring in from junior college. D.J. Smith is back at one of the safety spots, so there’s only one new starter. Clemson’s Deshaun Watson and USF’s Quinton Flowers had their way with the Gamecocks secondary late last season, but other notable quarterbacks struggled. There will be some big plays, but this group should force a decent amount of turnovers as well.

What We Don’t Know

-How much improvement should we expect from the offensive line? The unit regressed in a big way last season, with South Carolina averaging just 3.7 yards per carry and allowing 41 sacks, after not having allowed even 30 since 2012. Four of five starters are back, which sounds like a good thing, but the quartet must be far better than it was in 2016. There’s a new offensive line coach, as last year’s position-turned-interim head coach Shawn Elliott is now directing the Georgia State program.

-Where is the pass rush going to come from? South Carolina has just 80 sacks over the past four seasons, and Will Muschamp’s defenses have finished with 21 or fewer sacks in three of his last four seasons at Florida, Auburn and South Carolina. Dante Sawyer is an experienced piece at the big end position, while the Buck position gets a reboot with sophomore DJ Wonnum after Darius English, who produced 9.5 sacks from last year, ran out of eligibility.

-Can South Carolina handle a tougher schedule? Replacing Mississippi State with Arkansas is mostly a wash, but the non-conference slate is much trickier after facing two bad FBS teams and an FCS team last year. Clemson remains, but the opener with N.C. State in Charlotte is an added challenge, and a Week 4 home date with Louisiana Tech is highly dangerous. Last year, 3-1 in the non-conference seemed like a certainty. Now, even with a seemingly better team, 2-2 might be more realistic.

X-Factor

Wonnum – There’s some young talent in Columbia and more on the way on the defensive side of the ball, but the 2017 roster still lacks playmakers. Wonnum could help change that if he can emerge as a pass rushing threat as a sophomore. The linebackers aren’t bad, assuming Skai Moore can come close to matching his old self as he to form after missing last season with a neck injury, and the secondary is serviceable. The front, however, needs to be more impactful. That starts with pressure, and Wonnum is the best bet to generate it.

Ranking The Units

1.   Wide Receivers/Tight Ends
2.   Quarterbacks
3.   Running Backs
4.   Linebackers
5.   Defensive Backs
6.   Offensive Line
7.   Defensive Line

Season Prediction

The Gamecocks have generated a good amount of buzz this summer, but I’m calling for a slight step back this season. A Week 2 game in Missouri will be a huge swing game for South Carolina, and after needing a late turnover to win last year at home, I’m expecting revenge for the Tigers. Getting Arkansas, Kentucky and Vanderbilt in Columbia should mean at least two SEC wins, so another bowl bid is certainly possible, but I’ll say the Gamecocks come up just short of the postseason. The future is bright, however, and South Carolina will be a legitimate SEC East title contender in 2018.

Overall Record: 5-7
SEC Record: 2-6
Final CFP Ranking: NR
Bowl: None

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.