As dominant as South Carolina football looked last weekend against Charleston Southern, the Gamecocks were thoroughly beaten this weekend by SEC powerhouse Alabama.
But the Crimson Tide, ranked No. 2 in the country, can make lots of teams look overwhelmed, and USC’s 47-23 defeat was actually a little closer than the Las Vegas oddsmakers predicted.
Still, what was expected to be a Carolina loss heading into the season wound up being just that. So what can Gamecock fans and observers take from this weekend moving forward toward a crucial matchup with Missouri?
This team has Ryan Hilinski’s back
In his second career start and first in the SEC, true freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski wasn’t flawless — but he was pretty darn solid and poised going up against a fearsome defense. Asked to attempt 57 passes Saturday, he racked up 324 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception. He was never going to be able to win that game for USC by himself, but he stood tall and gave fans plenty of reason for optimism.
And now that senior Jake Bentley is officially out for the year, there’s no question this is Hilinski’s team now. A pair of senior offensive leaders in receiver Bryan Edwards and lineman Donell Stanley praised Hilinski’s performance and leadership after the game and made it clear — this is his team, and South Carolina will follow where he goes.
Bryan Edwards is big-game ready
After the worst statistical output of his career against North Carolina, Edwards was understandably frustrated. Against Alabama on Saturday, he came out with an edge, ready to prove himself. Nine receptions for 79 yards later, Edwards did just that. He was physical, aggressive and a problem for the Crimson Tide secondary, which features NFL talent in Treveon Diggs and Xavier McKinney.
After the game, Edwards was adamant about not taking moral victories from a defeat. But there’s no question he helped his NFL draft stock and showed he’s ready for the big stage.
Rico Dowdle is taking over the lead back spot
Three games into the year, senior running back Rico Dowdle is on pace to crack 1,000 yards and averaging 7.6 yards per attempt. Against Alabama, he rushed the ball 12 times for 102 yards and just missed a touchdown at the end of the first half.
Yes, running backs coach Thomas Brown has said he’d like to have two tailbacks to share the heavy load of an SEC schedule, but right now Dowdle has established himself a step ahead of Clemson transfer Tavien Feaster, who is averaging 5.8 yards per carry and was mostly held in check against the Crimson Tide. If Dowdle can stay healthy (a big if), he seems like South Carolina’s best option at the moment.
The passing defense has work to do
To be fair, Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa is a Heisman candidate and potential No. 1 draft pick. But he surpassed even his own high standards Saturday with a career performance against a Gamecock defense that included five touchdown passes and 444 yards. South Carolina tackled poorly and allowed short and intermediate passes to turn into chunk plays.
And through three games, USC is allowing the second-most passing yards and touchdowns per game in the conference, ahead of only Vanderbilt. North Carolina freshman quarterback Sam Howell also played well against the Gamecocks in Week 1, and the team has yet to collect an interception against an FBS opponent.
Gut check time is coming
After the startling loss to North Carolina in the season opener, South Carolina fans were wondering about the team’s bowl chances and coach Will Muschamp’s future with the program. Two weeks later, that talk has cooled as USC has done exactly as expected — decisively won against an inferior opponent and decisively lost to a superior one.
Barring a wildly unexpected upset, this Alabama game was always going to be limited in what it told us about the Gamecocks. Now that it’s official and things have unfolded as observers thought they would, the real big questions are set to be answered next week, against Missouri. Is South Carolina a bowl team? Can Muschamp prove Week 1 was just a fluke? Alabama could never teach us that. Mizzou could.
Who: South Carolina (1-2, 0-1 SEC) at Missouri (2-1, 0-0)
When: 4 p.m. Saturday
Where: Memorial Stadium
TV: SEC Network Alternate
Line: Missouri by 10