Location: Columbia, South Carolina
2017 record: 9-4
Head Coach: Will Muschamp (15-11, third season)
And now, the hard part.
There was a time when the South Carolina job was a nice assignment for a gentleman coasting into retirement. You’d leave a high profile pressure cooker like, I don’t know, Notre Dame or the Washington Redskins. You’d come to Columbia, and draw a decent paycheck while playing some golf and winning 7 or 8 games a year. And the home crowd was generally pretty pleased with it. And then you retired and played more golf.
But not now. First Lou Holtz came to town and won a few games, which was a new experience for Gamecock fans who lived through the Brad Wood era. Then Steve Spurrier came along and suddenly South Carolina fans legitimately expected to be in contention in the SEC East on a yearly basis.
To be clear, that’s still more an aspiration than a reality in most years. Cocky & Co. haven't been to Atlanta since 2010, when they got absolutely boat-raced by eventual national champion* Auburn. Incidentally, none of the coaches whose teams have represented the East in Atlanta since that game is still with his team other than 2017 participant Kirby Smart.
Which is to say, life has a way of moving on in the SEC while only changing ever so slightly. Spurrier gave way to Will Muschamp, who came to Columbia with the hope that he’d learned from his less-than-triumphant 3 year run in Gainesville. So far the results are promising. Muschamp helmed a team that finished 9-4 in 2017, a solid season by even historically elevated Garnet & Black standards. He accomplished that with a young offense, a boatload of injuries, and a relatively tough schedule. To repeat, Will Muschamp did well with a bad hand in 2017. Now the hard part: not messing up a relatively good setup for 2018.
Past as prologue. Or not?
Yes, I know Muschamp was also 9-4 in his second season at Florida but unemployed after his fourth. This feels a little different. For one, Coach Boom returns a solid nucleus of players in 2018.
Key among those is junior QB Jake Bentley. Bentley started all 13 games in 2017, throwing for 2794 yards and 18 touchdowns. He’s the unquestioned leader of this offense, and seemed late in 2017 as if he was really turning a corner. Bentley’s gifts have never been in question (Mark Richt, generally miserly with QB scholarships, offered him early while at Georgia). But the 12 interceptions he tossed in 2017 leave open the question of whether he’ll be efficient enough to lead the Columbians into the SEC’s upper echelon.
Coordinating the Gamecock attack will be Muschamp’' fellow UGA alumnus, Bryan McClendon, promoted following the dismissal of Kurt Roper. Roper coordinated Muschamp’' offense during his final season in Gainesville (to little success) and frankly hadn't done anything terribly impressive in Columbia. From what we know of McClendon’s preferences, expect to see a Gamecock attack that is less grind it out and more hurry up. If Muschamp lets him, McClendon could drag the Boom attack kicking and screaming into the twentieth century.
One advantage he'll have in doing so is a set of playmakers, including wide receiver Deebo Samuel. Samuel caught 15 passes for 250 yards in only three games in 2017 before going down with a season-ending injury. That's to say nothing of his kick returning abilities, which were electrifying. Samuel is a home run threat on par with former Dawg Isaiah McKenzie, and McClendon’s success will be judged to some extent on how often and how successfully he can get DSam the ball. Sophomores Ortre and Shi Smith return after solid freshman campaigns, and Bryan Edwards returns off a team-leading 64 receptions for 793 yards. I repeat: South Carolina can have an explosive offense, if only Will Muschamp will allow it.
Tailback Rico Dowdle returns in the backfield, as do Ty’son Williams and AJ Turner. None really seemed to take the reins of the rushing attack in 2017, but part of that may have been an offensive line that never really got sorted out. Nine different players started at one point or another in 2017, and though several of those are back it's fair to say the Gamecock OL remains a mystery. Potential All--SEC center Donnel Stanley not withstanding, there’s not a ton of quality depth here and the ‘Cocks may be only a couple of injuries up front from some real dysfunction.
That being said, it will be tough for the offense not to be better, and a good bit better if the line gels and Bentley progresses. The defense? Not so much. In a cruel twist of fate, it may be Muschamp’s defense that keeps the noted bloody-foreheaded guru up at night.
Gone are defensive end Dante Sawyer, linebacker Skai Moore, and safety Chris Lammons. The trio were each the most productive player at his own level of the Gamecock defense in 2017, and while there’s creditable young talent in Columbia, this is not a simple case of reloading. In the secondary especially, where corner Reshad Fenton is the only returning starter. That being said, sophomore Jamyest Williams is a playmaker who could step seamlessly into the other CB spot.
And the rotation up front returns enough that it shouldn't take much of a step back. Back are four players from the every game DL rotation including junior tackle DJ Wonnum and sophomore end Aaron Sterling. Juniors Javon Kinlaw and Kobe Smith daw some action last season as well and will be relied upon to step up. Also keep an eye on incoming freshman Rick Sandidge. The Gamecocks best out Georgia and others for the elite defensive end/tackle. He’ll contribute sooner rather than later.
Linebacker TJ Brunson was second on the team with 88 stops in 2017 and returns along with former blue chipper Bryson Allen-Williams, who went down three games into the 2017 season with a season-ending shoulder injury and was granted another shot at his senior season by the NCAA. That being said, replacing Moore, who led the Garnet & Black in tackles in each of the past four seasons, will be a tall task.
The bottom line
Early season trips to Columbia have been challenging to say the least for past UGA teams. This one sets up no differently. A misstep by Kirby Smart’s team with LSU on the road and Auburn looming down the line could put the ‘Dawgs at risk of a serious letdown season.
No one knows that better than Kirby Smart. But I expect the Fightin’ Muschamps not to go down without a fight. South Carolina should emerge as the #2 team in the east in this rebuilding year for Tennessee and Florida. But holding onto that slot in the future will remain a challenge. And #1 ain’t giving up the crown just yet. MaconDawg’s surely inaccurate prediction: UGA 34, SCar 17.