Previews 2019: Missouri, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vanderbilt

Jul 19, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp talks to the media during SEC football media day at the College Football Hall of Fame. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

South Carolina Gamecocks

Projected record: 6-6 (UA, TAM, UF, UGA, UM, Clem); 3-5 and 5th SEC East
Returning offensive starters: 7 (SE, FL, LT, RG, RT, QB, RB)
Returning defensive starters: 5 (RDT, SDE, WLB, MLB, RCB)
Returning specialists: 2 (PK, P)

Unit ratings
QB: Vg DL: Av
RB: Av LB: Fr
WR: Av DB: Av
OL: Av ST: Vg

Offense – what’s to like: QB Jake Bentley has all the tools to be a dynamic triggerman. From a pure skills component, he’s the best quarterback South Carolina has had in, potentially, decades. Two returning starters at receiver, Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith, put up numbers last year eerily similar to the heralded Deebo Samuel, who moved on to the NFL. The offensive line has some work to do, but both tackles return and the Gamecocks did a reasonably good job of preventing sacks last year (39th).

Get past that, and the word of the day is “flexibility.” Whether in regards to a backup quarterback who is also in the mix at receiver (Jay Urich), or a wide-open competition at running back, South Carolina wants to be more dynamic. And speaking of quarterback, the Gamecocks have quietly put together one of the more intriguing QB depth charts in the conference, with freshmen Dakereon Joyner and Ryan Hilinski backing up Bentley. Hilinsky, in particular, is one to watch.

Offense – potential pitfalls: South Carolina ranked a paltry 92nd in rushing offense last year, and there was plenty of blame to go around. The middle of the line was weak, and now it’s inexperienced to boot. There will be a new center (likely a freshman, Hank Manos) and left guard when Week 1 gets here. South Carolina also needs an upgrade at tight end, both for the sake of receiving and run blocking.

Bentley’s propensity to throw interceptions the worst possible times needs to be addressed. The bigger issue, though, is running back, where we graded on a curve a bit to get the Gamecocks a rating of “Average.” Mostly, that’s due to experience – Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner are both seniors – but this position is wide open and Will Muschamp’s recruiters haven’t been able to raise the talent level. Along with Dowdle and Turner, Mon Denson will get opportunities. The big name, though, is Tavien Feaster, who did the unthinkable and transferred in from hated rival Clemson. Regardless of who wins the job, next year’s Gamecock team will be starting over completely: All four of the above players run out of eligibility at the end of this year.

Defense/special teams – what’s to like: If you put a lot of faith in 2018 statistics, not much. South Carolina was ineffective against both run and pass. The special teams ended up being the brightest spot, with punter Joseph Charlton averaging around 44 yards per kick and kicker Parker White hitting 13 of 16 tries.

Looking forward, there is experience at linebacker, where Sherrod Greene and T.J. Brunson are both veterans of SEC wars. But poor linebacker play cost the Gamecocks dearly on multiple occasions. South Carolina should be strong in the middle of the line with Javon Kinlaw anchoring things. D.J. Wonnum, playing a Jack LB-like position that South Carolina more frequently groups with its defensive ends rather than linebackers, could be a breakout player.

Defense/special teams – potential pitfalls: The entire defense needs some kind of rebuild, whether in regards to raw talent or simply its mindset. South Carolina was below average in both tackles for loss and sacks in 2018, and aside from Wonnum taking over at Jack/DE, there aren’t a lot of new faces about which to get excited. As for the linebackers, it’s going to be a case of “show me.”

The defensive backfield needs three new starters but the coaches are hopeful. Hopeful, though, doesn’t explain rankings of 65th and 56th, respectively, in raw pass defense and pass efficiency defense. Jaycee Horn could be phenomenal at cornerback, but he’s going to need help, and depth is a big issue as well. The kick and punt return games also need to be rebuilt with Samuel leaving Columbia.

Final analysis: Good enough to be dangerous, but not talented enough to make a difference in the SEC East standings. This seems to have been South Carolina’s modus operandi for years. Much of the Gamecocks’ immediate future rides on the right shoulder of Jake Bentley, but he’ll need to get more consistent if South Carolina wants to contend. Defensively, observers are scratching their heads, wondering how a team coached by a defensive guru like Muschamp can be so mediocre.

READ MORE:  Tennessee

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