As South Carolina prepares for its fourth season under Will Muschamp, you can look across the board at good news/bad news scenarios for the Gamecocks.
The bad news on their schedule? It’s considered one of the roughest in all of college football (it probably should be at the top of the list) with visits by preseason number one (and arch-rival) Clemson (November 28th), number two Alabama (September 14th), and number eight Florida (October 19th, sandwiched between the Georgia game and a visit to Tennessee) and trips to number three Georgia (October 12th) and number 12 Texas A&M (November 16th, yes, two weeks before Clemson).
They follow the Alabama game playing at Missouri a week later (no cake walk) and even their final non-conference game, a November 9th contest at home against Appalachian State, comes against a program picked to win its conference and has one of the highest winning percentages among FBS programs in recent seasons.
The good news? There is very much the chance for a 2-0 start with a neutral site game in Charlotte against a North Carolina team that will play its first game under returning head coach Mack Brown and then a home game against FCS Charleston Southern. And if they can spring an upset or two along the way, they could land around eight wins, which would feel like 10 or 11 based on the competition.
The good news in terms of their personnel is that Muschamp calls this his deepest team and that’s certainly reflected in that fact that they have proven options at most positions, save for a significant injury on offense and still some questions defensively, particularly in the secondary.
Jake Bentley’s final season guiding the USC offense will likely lead to him holding all of the school’s major passing record as he covers of a 2018 campaign in which he amassed 3,171 yards by air and tossed 27 touchdowns. On the flip side, he’s looking for better efficiency after throwing 14 interceptions in 388 attempts.
“He’s taking care of the football and that’s the big thing,” Muschamp said.
True freshman Ryan Hilinski, who comes highly regarded from Orange, California, won the back-up job by beating out Dekereon Joyner, who’s likely to switch positions although there’s likely still to be a wildcat-type package for the redshirt freshman.
Clemson transfer Tavien Feaster, who looks to become just the third player ever to appear in a game for both Palmetto State rivals, is a dynamic addition to the backfield not only in terms of carrying the ball but in his ability to help in the passing game.
“He catches the ball extremely well,” Muschamp said during the preseason. “He’s like a receiver running routes as far as those things. He’s got really good ball skills.”
Rico Dowdle enters his senior campaign as the returning leading rusher but will be counted on to better his 654 yards from 2018. A.J. Turner also comes back and averaged 6.4 yards per carry on just 46 attempts a year ago.
Bentley lost his prime target Deebo Samuel to the NFL but senior Bryan Edwards and junior Shi Smith provide a formidable combo and Muschamp has raved about both of their performances in the preseason as well as sophomore Josh Vann and redshirt junior Randrecous Davis.
The tight end position presents one of those bad news scenarios for the Gamecocks.
They lost senior tight end Kiel Pollard for the season to a spinal issue, which forced his retirement from football. His role was likely to increase this season.
“I’m just really disappointed for Kiel and his family and for everybody involved in our organization as well,” Muschamp said. “Just a wonderful young man. During our research in helping him get back, we discovered through two specialists that he had a cyst on his spinal cord. Thank goodness we found it. Kiel is going to graduate in December. He wants to get into coaching. He’s going to be a part of our staff this fall moving forward.”
Former USC basketball player Evan Hinson is considered a likely option. However, he’ll miss the early portion of the schedule as he comes back from a medical issue.
Muschamp is confident in an offensive line that returns left tackle Sadarius Hutcherson, who moves from guard to protect Bentley’s blind side, and the right side combo of Donnell Stanley (guard) and right tackle Dylan Wonnum (tackle).
Defensively, among the good news is that they can hope a new year brings better health to a group that was riddled by injury a year ago.
They also return leading tackler T.J. Brunson and the senior linebacker’s 106 stops last season tied for the sixth in the SEC. Sherrod Greene is the other starting linebacker who comes back.
Up front, the hope is that end D.J. Wonnum can be among those who’s healthy all year after he was limited to five games last year due to injury. Keir Thomas returns on the other side and looks to rebound from injury in preseason camp.
In the middle of the Gamecocks’ front, Javon Kinlaw returns at one tackle while five star freshman Zaach Pickens, who had a stand-out prep career at Anderson, SC’s T.L. Hanna high school, is likely to push for playing time behind senior Kobe Smith. Muschamp notes that Pickens will also be used on offense in short yardage situations, something the 6-3, 293-pounder did in high school as well.
Jaycee Horn is the lone returning starter who finished the year healthy in the secondary and was second on the team last year with eight passes broken up. However, Jamyest Williams comes back as well at the other corner and looks for big things after a shoulder injury ended his 2018 campaign after eight games.
There are capable specialists coming back in kicker Parker White and punter Joseph Charlton, whose 44.8 yards per punt average was fifth in the conference in 2018.
A key metric for this season could be turnover over margin. A year ago, USC had a minus five turnover ratio (12th in the SEC) and forced just 16, and only six of those were interceptions.
Getting the ball back for Bentley and his weapons on offense could be crucial toward success.
Against the schedule they’ll see this fall, an improvement in that area, and several others, could potentially mean more good news than bad in their final record.