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Know Thy Enemy: The South Carolina Gamecocks

Duke’s Mayo Bowl - North Carolina v South Carolina
South Carolina Mayo ‘nly win six games this year, but will Gamecock fans care?
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

The Gamecock File

Location: Columbia, South Carolina. It’s Augusta, but without the pretty houses or the nice golf courses or the restaurants where they take the head off the fish before they fry it.

Home Field: Williams-Brice Stadium, a cement block dropped haphazardly into the middle of 12 acres of parking lot asphalt, which itself is situated somewhere in Satan’s armpit, just below Ole Scratch’s favorite wool sweater. I’ve watched football in literally a hundred venues, and it is my least favorite. I point this out because South Carolina fans reading this will love it, and I felt the need to throw them a proverbial bone.

What a difference a year makes

Let’s be honest. As good as Will Muschamp may have been for the Georgia Bulldog defense in 2021, he was just that bad for the South Carolina Gamecocks over the preceding years.

I’ve struggled for years to articulate exactly what the standard for success is in Columbia. That’s partially because dealing with college football fans is like dealing with five year olds. We have no context. We just want more. Let us stay up until 9:00 and we’ll beg to stay up until 10:00. Give us an ice cream and we’ll pitch a fit because there are no rainbow sprinkles. Make the Duke’s Mayo Bowl and we’ll wonder what playoff game we should book flights for next season. Basically the same mental finishing move.

But whatever is expected in lower Carolina it certainly wasn’t a 4-8 2019 followed by a 2-8 2020. It was depressing. It was demoralizing. It was, de Muschamping.

Gamecock fans needed some hope. Someone to bring back their swagger. Their perennial, utterly delusional optimism.

Beamer did that, at least to a point. A 6-6 season ending with a 30-0 thumping by Clemson and a rousing victory over North Carolina in a bowl sounds just sort of okay, objectively speaking. But for South Carolina fans it was proof positive that Beamer Ball, the Sequel is going to be a hit.

The Gamecocks won some games in 2021. Not a ton, but as many as in the prior two seasons combined. Not against the teams like Clemson and Georgia who they desperately want to beat. But they did take down teams like Auburn and North Carolina who they probably had no business beating. They had to come from behind to beat Vanderbilt at home, but by golly they pulled it out, which Muschamp’s teams very well might not have.

All of which is to say 2021 was a better season than the Garnet and Black had any right to logically expect, but now they’re ready for more.

And that was before they signed a player who lost his starting spot to a freshman in the Big XII and transferred but is now, based upon my perusal of South Carolina Twitter, probably going to be the first guy to make All-SEC on offense, defense, and special teams in the same season.

The Gamecock offense: Shake, Rattler, and Roll

Make no mistake, Spencer Rattler is a decided upgrade under center for the Beamerites. But given that they started four different quarterbacks and ranked 13th in the SEC in passing and scoring in 2021, you might be too.

Rattler’s freshman season at Oklahoma saw him throw for 3031 yards and 28 touchdowns against only 7 interceptions. It was the kind of campaign that builds you into a Heisman front runner.

Rattler’s sophomore season remains an enigma. He struggled with turnovers early in the season, ultimately was benched for the more mobile Caleb Williams in the Red River Shootout (a game the Sooners ultimately won), and never regained the starting job.

The Arizona native has arm talent. There’s no doubt about that. But succeeding at the highest level as a quarterback requires more than a crisp twenty yard out route. It will be interesting to see whether Rattler can gel with the rest of the Gamecock offense, and how he will respond if that process takes a while.

One key to Rattler’s well-being will be an offensive line that returns all five starters. That’s the good news. The bad news is that those guys gave up 31 sacks last season. They did pave the way for the SEC’s leading rusher, Kevin Harris. But Harris is gone, likely to be replaced by, well, somebody. The likely candidates include MarShawn Lloyd, a blue chip tailback who likely would have made a splash in 2021 but for a torn ACL. If he is back to his pre-injury level he’s no worse than the fifth best tailback in the SEC. There’s also Georgia transfer Lovesea Carroll, who moved to cornerback when he got to Athens because (looks at 2021 UGA tailback depth chart, needs a moment to steady himself), and Wake Forest transfer Christian Beal-Smith (131 carries, 601 yards, 7 TDs in 2021). Three talented tailbacks might be enough to take the load off Rattler, and if it is, and the Gamecock offense can play balanced football, they could be a problem.

The receivers unit returns 2021 standouts Josh Vann and Dakereon Joyner, as well as returning tight end Jaheim Bell and another Oklahoma transfer in tight end Austin Stogner. Bell was the team’s second leading receiver last year with 30 catches for 497 yards and Stogner snagged 14 catches and 3 touchdowns in Norman. Again, if South Carolina can keep teams from selling out to blow up Rattler and if they can protect him when defenses try to get to him, this offense has the potential to be, well, top seven in the SEC. Which is much better than last year.

The South Carolina Defense: A real good news/bad news story.

South Carolina led the SEC in recovered turnovers in 2021 with 24 (Georgia and Alabama tied for second at 21). That’s good.

And they led the league in passing defense, giving up only 180.8 yards per game through the air. That sounds good, but only if you don’t know that Columbia’s finest gave up 175.0 yards per game and 4.69 yards per carry on the ground. Why would you throw the ball against a team with a run defense that porous?

The key to improvement for the Gamecocks on the defensive side of the ball will be shoring that up. As usual the Garnet & Black will have some talent up front, including Zacch Pickens (38 tackles, 5 TFL, 4 sacks in 2021). Pickens is a Devonte Wyatt-type, with a quick first step and good body control who will definitely play on Sundays. Alex Huntley (6’4, 305) only had 9 tackles in 2021, but 3 of them came against Auburn and North Carolina in signature wins to close the season. If he continues to develop he could also be a star in the making.

On the edge Beamer’s boys have former top overall recruit Jordan Burch (26 tackles, 2.5 TFL, 1 sack), who has been a solid player through two years but needs to take a step forward as a junior to live up to the excitement surrounding his signing.

At linebacker the Gamecocks return a pair of solid veterans in Brad Johnson and Sherrod Greene. Johnson was second on the team with 74 total tackles last season and probably would have gotten a look in the NFL Draft had he chosen to take that leap. Greene likely would have also had a nice season had he not broken his ankle against the Bulldogs in the third game of the season. If he’s back and healthy he’ll help that anemic run defense, at least a little.

In the secondary Cam Smith (41 tackles, 3 INT) returns at corner and has solid All-SEC potential. Opposite him senior Darius Rush is a big (6’2, 195) physical corner who can turn and run. Junior David Spaulding saw action in all 13 games last season and should slide into a more prominent role in 2022. Shane Beamer may have things to worry about, but this unit doesn’t look like one of them.

The Bottom Line: Better, but by how much?

I think the Gamecocks will be better in year two under Shane Beamer. But the frustrating thing for their fans may be that it doesn’t show up in the record books. After hosting the always pesky Georgia State Panthers to open the year South Carolina travels to #19 Arkansas and then hosts the ‘‘Dawgs. I used to worry about Saturday nights in Columbia, but I don’t see this Gamecock team pulling a Spurrier-style ambush.

So assuming the ‘Cocks are 1-2 at that stage their season likely comes down to an October trip to #20 Kentucky, a November trip to Gainesville to play Florida, and a home tilt with Missouri in between. If they win two of those three they could realistically finish the year 7-5. All of them and the Beamer Boys could wind up 8-4. And a South Carolina 8 is an Alabama 12 so far as wins go.

Of course that would probably only convince South Carolina fans that Shane Beamer is about to recreate the halcyon days of 10 win seasons and SEC Championship Game defeats they experienced at the height of the Spurrier regime. This is the vicious cycle of college football, and the particularly vicious cycle of South Carolina fandom.

Score Prediction: Georgia 38, South Carolina 20.