In the 100 days leading up to the kickoff of the college football season on Saturday, Aug. 25, HERO Sports is ranking the top 100 teams in the FBS. Each day, starting May 17 and ending Aug. 24, a new team is revealed in the HERO Sports Top 100.
No. 31 South Carolina
South Carolina is ahead of schedule.
The Gamecocks have increase their win totals by 100 percent and 50 percent the last two years, respectively, and enter 2018 with one of the SEC's best quarterbacks in Jake Bentley, one of the nation's best receivers in Deebo Samuel and enough talent on defense to keep forcing a silly number of turnovers and improve a pass rush.
2017 Record: 9-4 (5-3, SEC)
South Carolina equaled their win total from the previous two seasons combined with an unexpected nine victories.
While they lost to Kentucky at home for the second time in three years, needed a miraculous comeback to beat Louisiana Tech, didn't play well against bad Tennessee and Vandy teams, the Gamecocks beat NC State, played Georgia hard in Athens and beat Michigan in the Outback Bowl.
Head Coach: Will Muschamp (3rd Year, 15-11)
"Certainly, any time you're able to reflect and take some perspective on what happened, you've got to be willing to learn," Will Muschamp said at his introductory news conference in December 2015, referencing his Florida tenure that went downhill quickly after an 11-win second season. "That's one of the things you've got to do is look back. There's nobody that's going to be more self-critical of themselves than myself as far as what we need to do to be successful.".
Like his tenure at Florida, Muschamp finds himself ahead of schedule — at least in terms of external expectations — after his second season. Can he avoid another meltdown this time?
TE Hayden Hurst, DE Dante Sawyer, LB Skai Moore, DB Chris Lammons, S D.J. Smith
Hayden Hurst became the six South Carolina tight end drafted since 2009 when the Ravens selected him with the 25th pick in the 2018 draft. A two-time team captain and All-SEC First-Team selection, Hurst was the team's second-leading receiver (44 reception, 559 yards) in 2017.
Defensively, Skai Moore is a massive loss. Voted a team captain as a sophomore in 2015 before missing all of 2016 with a neck injury, Moore had more than 300 career tackles and tied the program's career interceptions record.
Elsewhere, Dante Sawyer was one of only three players with more than two sacks last year, Chris Lammons was their jack-of-all-trades defensive back for the last four years — playing corner, nickel, and safety — and safety D.J. Smith was a two-year starter who excelled on special teams.
Returning Offensive Players
QB Jake Bentley, RB Rico Dowdle, RB Ty'Son Williams, RB A.J. Turner, WR Deebo Samuel, WR Bryan Edwards, WR Shi Smith, OT Dennis Daley, G Zack Bailey, C Donnell Stanley, P Joseph Charlton
After saying throughout the season that the offense needed to be more "productive," Will Muschamp fired offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kurt Roper a week two weeks after the regular-season finale.
The unit improved from 2016 (though that's saying little because they were downright miserable in 2016), but they still ranked 70th nationally in points per play, 84th in yards per play, 88th on third downs, 96th in yards per rush attempt, 80th in sack rate and 92nd in yards per completion.
Bryan McClendon was promoted from receivers coach (he's still receivers coach) and the first-time coordinator and first-time play-caller plans to use more RPOs and formations, and be more aggressive.
"His mindset is so aggressive. I love it,” starting quarterback Jake Bentley said of McClendon. “I love it when we talk football because he wants to score as many points as he can. I think that’s big for us, it’s big for our offense to have that confidence from our coordinator that we can score as many points as we want to.”
Bentley returns after a strong junior season that included some hiccups — four multi-interception games, 56-for-93 and two touchdowns, eight interceptions vs. Florida, Georgia and Clemson — but featured more steps forward for the now-junior. He's running a faster offense that requires quick pre-snap reads. In Roper's system, he had several seconds to read the defense while settling under center.
They're loaded at the skill positions, especially with the return of an All-America candidate at receiver in Deebo Samuel, who led the team in receiving touchdowns (six) despite missing the final 10 games with a leg injury. Reliable slot receiver Shi Smith (zero drops last season) is back, as is last year's leading receiver Bryan Edwards and three capable running backs in Turner, Williams and Dowdle. Turner is one of the more explosive backs in the SEC.
The offensive line is led by senior left guard Zack Bailey, who played right tackle in 2017 but has moved back inside to his natural position. Senior left tackle Dennis Daley is a former JUCO transfer who grabbed the spot last September and should hold off true freshman Maxwell Iyama.
Returning Defensive Players
DE D.J. Wonnum, DE Keir Thomas, DT Javon Kinlaw, LB T.J. Brunson, CB Rashad Fenton, NB Keisean Nixon, S Steven Montac
Travaris Robinson has done a brilliant job with the defense. The 36-year-old soon-to-be FBS head coach worked with Muschamp at Auburn (2006-07, 2015) and Florida (2011-14) and followed him to Columbia in 2016.
The Gamecocks led the SEC in forced turnovers, held 11 of 13 opponents below their season scoring average, and ranked in the top 20 nationally in yards per completion and points per play. They did, however, struggle on third downs (40 percent), had a sack rate of 5.5 percent and allowed opponents to score on 84 percent of red-zone opportunities.
The pass rush should be better with the continued development of D.J. Wonnum (13 tackles for loss, six sacks) and T.J. Brunson (4.5 tackles for loss, two sacks). The 6-foot-1, 240-pound Brunson (below) is deadly on the blitz and has been lauded for his leadership skills entering his junior season.
“He is extremely bright, hard-working, humble, doesn’t say a whole lot, but when he comes to practice he comes with the right mindset," Muschamp said of Brunson this summer. "He is the type of guy you want your mike linebacker to play like. I’m expecting a huge year from TJ. I think he’s had a really good summer, he looks great and I know he feels very comfortable what we’re doing defensively and being our signal caller.”
Protecting the perimeter has been a major focus over the spring and summer after the Gamecocks were often hurt on bubble screens and quick passes, largely thanks to poor tackling. One remedy could be Keisean Nixon, a senior who's played corner but will move inside to nickel.
"Keisean can give you a physical presence in there against some of the bubble teams," Muschamp said of Nixon, who's a lot more physical than his 5-foot-10 frame suggests.
OT Maxwell Iyama, C Hank Manos, LB Davonne Brown, CB Israel Mukuamu, CB Jaycee Horn, CB Tavyn Jackson, S Jaylin Dickerson, CB Nick Harvey, S J.T. Ibe
Maxwell Iyama was only a three-star recruit out of Murfreesboro, Tenn., in the 2018 class but, in addition to South Carolina, the offensive tackle had some legit offers (e.g. Georgia, Mississippi State). He enrolled early and is the Gamecocks' future left tackle. Center Hank Manos is another early enrollee who might sit for most of 2018 but will play a lot of snaps in his career.
South Carolina landed two grad transfer defensive backs in Nick Harvey (Texas A&M) and J.T. Ibe (Rice). Both didn't arrive until the summer, but both will get opportunities in a potentially shaky secondary.
“Both very bright guys,” Muschamp said at SEC Media Days. “It’s the first thing that strikes me. J.T. was a three-year starter at Rice, a very physical player, a very smart player. Nick is a guy that was an elite corner in our league two years ago, and he tore is ACL before last season. He looks really good moving around in the short time that he’s been with us.
Also, keep an eye on several freshman defensive backs, including 6-foot-4, 196-pound corner Israel Mukuamu, and redshirt freshman linebacker Davonne Brown.
South Carolina opens with three straight home games, but it's not as easy stretch with both Georgia and Marshall coming to Williams-Brice Stadium.
They close with three of four on the road, including the customary finale against Clemson.
|Saturday, Sept. 1||vs. Coastal Carolina|
|Saturday, Sept. 8||vs. Georgia|
|Saturday, Sept. 15||vs. Marshall|
|Saturday, Sept. 22||at Vanderbilt|
|Saturday, Sept. 29||at Kentucky|
|Saturday, Oct. 6||vs. Missouri|
|Saturday, Oct. 13||vs. Texas A&M|
|Saturday, Oct. 27||vs. Tennessee|
|Saturday, Nov. 3||at Ole Miss|
|Saturday, Nov. 10||at Florida|
|Saturday, Nov. 17||vs. Chattanooga|
|Saturday, Nov. 24||at Clemson|