South Carolina Gamecocks
Overview: Even though tidefans.com predicted South Carolina to finish 6-6 in the regular season a year ago, the fact the Gamecocks actually did it was still a bit of a surprise. Will Muschamp, never known as a great head coach while at Florida, managed to cobble together a competent roster despite an overall lack of talent and a couple of key injuries, and pulled off upsets over mississippi state and tennessee along the way. This year's team is essentially the same as last year's, with the same general strengths and weaknesses aside from a special teams group that must be rebuilt. There is enough talent in South Carolina's territory, and Muschamp a good enough recruiter, that a productive long-term marriage isn't out of the question.
Projected record: 7-5 (UF, uga, TAM, UT, Clem); 4-4 and 4th sec east
Returning offensive starters: 9 (SE, FL, TE, LT, C, RG, RT, QB, RB)
Returning defensive starters: 7 (RDT, LDT, WLB, SLB, RCB, LCB, FS)
Returning specialists: 0
Ratings (Ex, Vg, Av, Fr, Pr)
QB: Vg DL: Fr
RB: Av LB: Av
WR: Vg DB: Av
OL: Av ST: Pr
Offensive breakdown: Jake Bentley had an eventful and inconsistent true freshman campaign, but he also proved his mettle in sec play, finished with a strong performance and had a sharp spring. Some observers think he could eventually be the best SEC quarterback of his class, which would also include jalen hurts. He'll get an early chance to prove it, because the opening stretch of NC state->missouri->kentucky isn't a pushover for a team still searching for its identity. We're betting squarely on Bentley's potential here, because the rest of the depth chart is a bit of a train wreck and the top backup, Michael Scarnecchia, has virtually no experience and hasn't played football in a year.
The running back group needs improvement, but it may get it in the form of North Carolina transfer Ty'Son Williams. Last year's starter, Rico Dowdle, looked pedestrian against top competition and A.J. Turner isn't physical enough to take the pounding SEC defenses will dish out. That leaves Williams, who at least initially had to walk on at South Carolina. Media reports from throughout his 2016 sit-out season raved about how he looked in practice, so if Williams is more than just a scrimmage warrior, the Gamecocks might have something here. Receivers Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards also return to their posts, with Samuel expected to be one of the SEC's breakout players in 2017. He was slowed by injury a year ago. South Carolina doesn't lack for size in its receivers, and there's plenty of depth here and especially at tight end, where Hayden Hurst and K.C. Crosby split the position in 2016 and put up 833 yards receiving between them. Bentley will have no shortage of capable targets.
The offensive line, though, could use work. South Carolina was 108th in rushing offense and it wasn't all Dowdle's fault. Coaches shuffled the starting lineup in the spring, somewhat thanks to available depth at guard, and if things hold, the Gamecocks could have two former guard prospects playing tackle. The right side of the line is expected to carry this group, thanks in part to a left guard battle that is still raging.
Defensive/ST breakdown: If there's one area of the team that threatened to cause Muschamp to have one of his famous eruptions, it was the rush defense, and particularly the interior of the defensive line. South Carolina finished a horrendous 90th there, out of character for a Muschamp-coached team. If it gets better, it will be because Dante Sawyer and Shameik Blackshear, both veterans, toughen up the defensive end slots. Tackles Ulric Jones and Taylor Stallworth return, but neither played up to potential in 2016 and these is no depth behind them.
The linebacker group ought to be improved, if for no other reason than Skai Moore is back from a year lost to injury. Bryson Allen-Williams is a solid weakside backer. One question is whether T.J. Brunson can be the answer at middle linebacker; the other is who is going to step up to form the second team. freshmen dominated the depth chart in the spring. The defensive backfield should be sound overall but also didn't play up to potential in 2016, and the lack of a pass rush was much to blame. A better performance out of the defensive line, along with the return of Moore at linebacker, should help. South Carolina also needs to shore up the safety spots. There will be a lot of young players in key positions on this side of the ball, perhaps more than expected if the line continues to struggle.
The special teams units will have to be rebuilt, as both punter Sean Kelly and kicker Elliott Fry graduated. A pair of walk-on freshmen, Alex Woznick and Brandon Chiazza, are battling for the job along with four players also competing at punter. One of those is Joseph Charlton, who led the punting battle coming out of spring, but it wouldn't be a surprise to see both jobs up in the air for awhile. The kickoff return game is in Deebo Samuel's capable hands, but there are questions at punt returner unless Chris Lammons stays there.
Overall Trend: Sideways. The improvements seem to be coming, but it's going to take a couple of recruiting classes to see most of the benefit. Muschamp's greatest challenge will be to bolster the talent along both lines of scrimmage, which is where the Steve Spurrier staff seemed to falter most. In the short term, continuing to develop Jake Bentley at quarterback is the greatest concern, with finding kickers next on the list. Unless South Carolina can stop opponents more consistently, the whole thing might fall flat.
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