No. 42 South Carolina
Just a year after inheriting a thin, largely stale roster Will Muschamp already has South Carolina headed back in the right direction. He found a quarterback, has two of the best young running backs in the SEC and gets a veteran leader back on defense.
Now they face more than a half-dozen toss-up games that will determine if they make an unexpectedly quick return to SEC East contention.
2016 Record: Wins-Losses (Wins-Losses, SEC)
The first season of the post-Spurrier era began in rough fashion with four losses in their first six games. The offense struggled badly in the first half of the season, failing to top 20 points until Oct. 22 — a stretch that included five games with 14 or fewer points.
Head Coach: Will Muschamp (2nd year, 6-7 overall)
Will Muschamp got a second head coaching chance just one year after being fired by Florida.
Now the 45-year-old, who has spent most of his coaching career in the SEC, is trying to rebuild the Gamecocks after the abrupt departure of Steve Spurrier.
"You know, time as a head coach helps,” he said at SEC Media Day of his head coaching experience. “I don’t look at it any different than playing as a freshman or a rookie. As you continue to get more snaps, the game slows down for you.
Key Returning Offensive Players
QB Jake Bentley, RB Rico Dowdle, RB A.J. Turner, TE Hayden Hurst, WR Deebo Samuel, WR Bryan Edwards, C Alan Knott
Last fall, Jake Bentley should've been a senior at Opelika High School in Alabama. Instead, he was leading South Carolina to four wins after taking over as starter in late October.
“To be honest with you, I called (athletic director Ray) Tanner,” Muschamp said. “I said, ‘Am I wrong to think we need to play a high school senior?’ He said, ‘Absolutely not. I’m not telling you what to do. You can do whatever you want to do.’ He said, ‘You know, if your gut tells you to do it, do it."
Bentley struggled against against Clemson (7-for-17 for 41 yards) but was otherwise good, if not great. He was shockingly efficient for a youngster, completing 66 percent of his passes, and throwing nine touchdowns to four interceptions.
Bentley's top three targets are back, including junior tight end Hayden Hurst. The Jacksonville, Fla., native and former minor league baseball player has come out of nowhere after starting as a walk-on. He had 48 catches for 616 yards last year.
“Everything they tell you about SEC football is 100 percent true,” Hurst said this summer. “You’d better have your chinstrap buckled up every single week, because there’s guys wanting to take your head off. If you don’t have your feet in the ground, they’re going to get you."
Sophomore Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner will pace a running game after excelling as freshman. Dowdle averaged 5.7 yards per carry and ran for 520 yards over a four-game late-season stretch. And senior center Alan Knott is one of four returning starters on an improving offensive line.
Key Returning Defensive Players
DT Taylor Stallworth, DT Ulric Jones, LB Skai Moore, LB Bryson Allen-Williams, LB T.J. Brunson, CB JaMarcus King, S D.J. Smith
South Carolina needs more consistent disruption in 2017. While they did rank 22nd nationally with 15 interceptions and 15th with 12 fumble recoveries, they had fewer than two sacks per game, finishing the season with just 21.
The return of Skai Moore won't fix everything but the fifth-year senior is a big addition. Moore returns after missing all 2016 with a neck injury. He has been a menace since his freshman year, racking up 258 career tackles and — as one of the best cover linebackers in the nation — 11 interceptions.
“He’s done a tremendous job," defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson said of Moore's recovery. "I’m so impressed with him right now, just from a learning standpoint, a leadership and accountability standpoint
Moore will team with fellow senior Bryson Allen-WIlliams — who had a breakout junior season, more than doubling his stats from each of his first two years — and emerging sophomore T.J. Brunson, a Columbia native.
“T.J. Brunson has changed his body and continued to do some really good things for us as a true freshman at linebacker,” Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp said during spring ball. “He needs to continue to take the next step.”
Muschamp has both expressed concern and confidence in the defensive line depth. So it's unclear what he actually thinks of a front that lost two defensive ends, including their lone legit pass rusher from a year ago, Darius English. They do return two senior tackles in Taylor Stallworth and Ulric Jones but will need one of many sophomores and freshmen to emerge.
"We need to improve. We need to get better," Muschamp said of their pass rush. "We need more fast-twitch up front. We've got to get more edge guys.
Depth is not a concern in the secondary, where they return five players with significant experience, led by corner JaMarcus King. The long and lanky (6-foot-2, 186 pounds) JUCO transfer played well in his first year, tying for the team lead with three interceptions and leading the team with nine passes defended.
Notable Player Losses
DE Darius English, LB T.J. Holloman
South Carolina's two biggest departures came on defense in end Darius Engilsh and linebacker T.J. Holloman. English not only led the team in sacks with nine, he was also the only player with more than two. And Holloman helped ease the loss of Skai Moore by registering 71 tackles and three interceptions.
Notable Player Additions
RB Ty'Son Williams, WR Randrecous Davis, WR OrTre Smith, S Jaylin Dickerson
Two true freshman made the post-spring two-deep depth chart: receiver OrTre Smith and safety Dickerson. At 6-foot-4, 229 pounds, Smith is a specimen of an athlete who will give Jake Bentley a big target for the next few years. Dickerson is a three-star prospect from North Carolina who will learn behind D.J. Smith for a year before starting in 2018.
North Carolina transfer running back Ty'Shon Williams will assume a big role behind Rico Dowdle, and redshirt freshman receiver Rancrecous Davis should see snaps. Davis missed a lot of spring practice with a sports hernia but still earned a two-deep spot.
South Carolina opens the season against North Carolina State in Charlotte. It's the teams' first meeting since 2009 and just their third since 1999.
They open SEC play a week later with a trip to Missouri and have their SEC home opener on Sept. 16 vs. Kentucky. Other notable games include trips to Texas A&M, Tennessee and Georgia, and home games vs. Clemson and Florida.
|Saturday, Sept. 2||vs. North Carolina State|
|Saturday, Sept. 9||at Missouri|
|Saturday, Sept. 16||vs. Kentucky|
|Saturday, Sept. 23||vs. Louisiana Tech|
|Saturday, Sept. 30||at Texas A&M|
|Saturday, Oct. 7||vs. Arkansas|
|Saturday, Oct. 14||at Tennessee|
|Saturday, Oct. 28||vs. Vanderbilt|
|Saturday, Nov. 4||at Georgia|
|Saturday, Nov. 11||vs. Florida|
|Saturday, Nov. 18||vs. Wofford|
|Saturday, Nov. 25||vs. Clemson|