The South Carolina Gamecocks are coming off of a 9-4 season with an Outback Bowl victory over the Michigan Wolverines. Will Muschamp has done a great job at bringing this team along since his first season in 2016; improving each year in the win total column with six in 2016 and nine in 2017.
This offseason, Muschamp got rid of former offensive coordinator, Kurt Roper, and promoted Bryan McClendon to OC after a great second half of play calling and halftime adjustments in the Outback Bowl.
South Carolina finished second in the SEC East last season with a 5-3 conference record (9-4 overall) behind Georgia who finished 7-1 in the conference regular season (13-2 overall) and won the SEC Championship game and lost the National Championship game on the last play of the game.
There are some real reason to be optimistic about this season if you are a Gamecock fan but there are also areas of concern per the usual. But this season is lined up for South Carolina to make one more push at the SEC East title before this side of the conference starts to level out in difficulty.
Here are FIVE reasons that South Carolina wins the SEC East this season:
1) GEORGIA COMES EARLY
The Georgia/South Carolina game is typically played early in the year; maybe week two or three and is generally always closely contested. However, the past two seasons, this game has been played later in the season with last year's game being played on November 4 and the 2016 game was played on October 9.
This coming season it's played on September 8 and is the second game of the season for South Carolina. It is comfortably cushioned between Coastal Carolina in the first game of the season and the University of Marshall at home the week after Georgia. The Bulldogs lost over 30 players this offseason, 11 of which were starters that graduated including Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Davin Bellamy, Isaiah Wynn and Lorenzo Carter. They also lost Butkus Award winner, Roquan Smith, to the NFL Draft as an early departure.
Two years ago, in Muschamp's first season at USC, they played UGA on a Sunday after the game on Saturday got pushed back due to inclement weather. The Gamecocks were clearly outmatched but kept it close in a 28-14 loss (really 21-14 minus the outlier of an onside kick returned for a TD in a game where QB, Jacob Eason couldn't hit water from a boat in the middle of the ocean). Last year, Carolina put up a hard fight in Athens but the talent gap was still too great to overcome but it wasn't easy for Georgia either as they went on to win 24-10.
Georgia brought in a historical recruiting class for the 2018 cycle but they lost a lot of experience and leadership, especially on the defensive side of the ball. I don't believe the Dawgs are going anywhere in terms of national relevancy but I have to believe that losing so much experienced talent will set them back a bit, even if ever so slightly. The Gamecocks get them in just the second week of the regular season at Williams-Brice Stadium. Catching the Dawgs early in the season, at home, with a bunch of new starters and an overall younger team that maybe hasn't had enough time to really begin to gel, should give the Gamecocks the slight advantage in this game.
2) TALENT AT RECEIVER
The Gamecocks biggest loss this offseason is undoubtedly Hayden Hurst who became a staple in USC's offense at the tight end position. Replacing his production and prowess will not be done easily but there are plenty of weapons on this offense in 2018. Deebo Samuel is coming back from a season-ending injury last year and you also have Bryan Edwards, OrTre Smith and Shi Smith all back. Josh Vann, 4-star recruit in 2018 class, is also coming into the program though he will not be on campus until fall camp starts.
Of course, the biggest name of those mentioned is Deebo Samuel who was pegged as a potential Heisman candidate just two games into the season. He played in USC's third game of the year against Kentucky but in the third quarter he broke his leg on a play and would not play another snap the rest of the season. In his limited action last year he had 15 receptions for 250 yards, THREE receiving touchdowns, TWO carries for 30 yards and ONE touchdown and returned TWO kickoffs for scores, giving him SIX total scores in just under NINE quarters of football.
The receiving depth is at the best it's been in quite some time and there are still some guys who can contribute that nobody really knows about yet like Randrecous Davis, Chavis Dawkins and Darius Rush. Chad Terrell, sophomore wide receiver, was injured in spring practice back on March 5 and will miss at least the remainder of the spring with a torn ACL.
This receiving corps has the chance to be one of the top units in the SEC and if Bentley progresses like he should, it could be one of the best in the country.
3) DEFENSIVE TOUGHNESS
The Gamecocks do lose a significant amount of starting defensive experience from last years team, especially in the secondary, in guys like Chris Lammons, DJ Smith and Jamarcus King. They also lost their leading tackler in four of the last five seasons in Skai Moore.
It won't be easy replacing Moore or the experienced depth that the three secondary guys provided but as far as skill and potential go, I think this year's secondary will end up being better...significantly better actually.
It may not all happen at once or even this year but I firmly believe that this years secondary is actually better as far as talent and potential go. Starting corners are likely to be Rashad Fenton and Keisean Nixon with Steven Montac likely playing the nickel position.
Safety is a position of concern as far as depth and experience but there are some talented young guys that can begin their careers as they fill the void left by Lammons and Smith. Guys like Israel Mukuama and Jamyest Williams who was moved to safety this spring to try and build some depth at the position.
The Gamecocks also await the arrival of two more corners from the most recent recruiting class in Jaycee Horn and Jonathan Gipson.
The linebackers are thin in depth but there is some real talent there as well. TJ Brunson is back as last year's second leading tackler along with the return of Bryson Allen-Williams. They bring in Rosendo Louis after flipping him from his Florida State commitment back on the early signing day in December. A couple other linebackers are Sherrod Greene, Eldridge Thompson, Davonne Bowen and Antoine Wilder.
I think the defensive line is poised to take a big step forward this year as far as effectiveness in pass rush and run stopping goes. With DJ Wonnum returning on the edge, Javon Kinlaw on the interior and guys around them like Brad Johnson, Shameik Blackshear, Kingsley Enagbare, Keir Thomas, Aaron Sterling, Kobe Smith and MJ Webb.
They also await one of the biggest gets for them in the 2018 recruiting cycle in Rick Sandidge. A 6-5, 285 pound defensive tackle who is built ready for the college game but enrolling in the fall will put him behind some as far as learning the playbook and schemes. Jabari Ellis is another defensive tackle that will enroll in the fall.
This defense is still somewhat young and will be inexperienced at some positions but the talent of the players on it should not be overlooked. There will be learning curves and hiccups but I think the defense will improve under year three of Will Muschamp.
4) NEW COACHES AT UF & UT
The Florida Gators and Tennessee Volunteers both underwent coaching changes in this offseason. One went smoothly...the other didn't. That's all I have to say about that...
Both teams are coming off of four win seasons and have nowhere to go but up in 2018. But I don't think either are ready to compete in the division which leaves just South Carolina and Georgia to battle it out for the East title in my opinion.
Both coaches did well in recruiting respectively for the circumstances they each faced. I think both will get their teams back to competitive level in the near future but I don't believe 2018 is the year it happens. Both teams should look to making a bowl game first...
5) BRYAN MCCLENDON & DAN WERNER
After firing former offensive coordinator, Kurt Roper, at the conclusion of the regular season, the Gamecocks gave Bryan McClendon a chance to "try out" for the job by taking interim OC role for the Outback Bowl against Michigan.
The first half looked like a continuation of the Roper era but McClendon made some halftime adjustments that ended up paying off in a big way. After trailing 19-3 at halftime, the Gamecocks went on a 23-0 run in the second half against the #3 defense in the country at the time (according to stats) to ultimately get a 26-19 win over the maize n blue.
McClendon would be offered the full time position and would accept. South Carolina also brought in Dan Werner as their quarterbacks coach which may end up being the biggest "get" for the staff this offseason. He has worked with some great college quarterbacks in his career and seems to have already made an impact on Bentley.
As has been the case all spring and made evident in the spring game back on March 31, the Gamecocks will look to implement an up-tempo style to their offense, whether it be part time or full time will be a case-by-case situation.
*For a little more info on each point/reason, listen to audio at beginning of article*
Barring any significant injury, the Gamecocks have a tremendous opportunity laid out in front of them. All they have to do is stay healthy and seize the moment.