I’ve come here to defend South Carolina, although this might seem a strange way to do it: The Gamecocks are not going to win eight games this year, so put that out of your head right now.
None of you probably were thinking that this summer and, maybe, most of you aren’t now, but there’s a growing contingent that has begun to mistake August optimism for actual results.
There’s no question that South Carolina’s preseason camp has been full of good news. Young quarterbacks Brandon McIlwain and Jake Bentley are as advertised. Old quarterback Perry Orth has been everything his coaches could have hoped for off the field and is better on the field.
Bryson Allen-Williams is really good, and the rest of the linebackers aren’t half-bad.
Rashad Fenton is a very talented defensive back and could be one of the conference’s best punt returners if he can hang onto the football.
Taylor Stallworth and Kelsey Griffin have had strong camps at defensive tackle, which could be a big boost for a defensive line that can now move Marquavius Lewis back outside in its base defense.
The offensive line is veteran and hulking, and the transformation of right tackle D.J. Park from disappointment to stalwart could be the most impactful development of the offseason.
David Williams is coming around at running back.
There’s more talent at wide receiver than folks first feared.
There are lots of athletic tight ends, among them Hayden Hurst, who will make enough plays this season that people around the conference will say, “Huh, where did that guy come from?”
These are all good things, and many of them bode well for the future, even the immediate future, but they don’t erase other issues. The Gamecocks were 3-9 last season. They lost to The Citadel. They lost their best offensive (Pharoh Cooper) and defensive (Skai Moore) player from that team. There are foundational issues that have had to be addressed.
If you’re into fancy numbers, the Gamecocks rank 117th in FBS in offensive and defensive production returning, according to SBNation. They are 108th on Phil Steele’s experience chart.
Here’s the schedule:
▪ Vanderbilt on the road
▪ Mississippi State on the road
▪ East Carolina at home
▪ Kentucky on the road
▪ Texas A&M at home
▪ Georgia at home
▪ UMass at home
▪ Tennessee at home
▪ Missouri at home
▪ Florida on the road
▪ Western Carolina at home
▪ Clemson on the road
Finding eight wins in that group is tougher than finding the bright spots from camp. ESPN’s Football Power Index suggests South Carolina has a better than 50 percent chance of winning four of those games – Missouri, UMass, Western Carolina and East Carolina – and projects the Gamecocks will win 5.4 games.
Don’t misunderstand. Will Muschamp and his staff have checked every box since Muschamp was hired in December. They won the winter, spring and summer and have shown signs they can win some falls. If South Carolina fans think that’s going to start with eight victories this fall, they are setting themselves up for disappointment.
More importantly, they are putting their team in the unfair position of having to finish two games above .500 to prove progress. A 6-6 record would represent a doubling of the Gamecocks’ wins from a year ago, put this team in a bowl game and represent a large step in the right direction.
Step one is Thursday night against Vanderbilt.