South Carolina football hosts Appalachian State at Williams-Brice Stadium this Saturday, kicking off at 7 p.m. on ESPN2.
Favored by 5 1/2 points as of Friday morning, the Gamecocks would move within a game of bowl eligibility with a win, while a loss would drop them 4-6 on the year and could reignite the hot seat under coach Will Muschamp.
Here are some of the main storylines and questions facing USC as it preps to face the Mountaineers.
Will USC avoid becoming App State’s second Power 5 victim?
Appalachian State is famous for beating No. 5 Michigan in 2007 as an FCS school, and it has only burnished its reputation as a dangerous small program to play since joining the FBS and Sun Belt Conference. Earlier this season, the Mountaineers took down North Carolina 34-31 on the Tar Heels’ home turf. A win over the Gamecocks would give App State its second win over a Power 5 program in a season for the first time in program history.
A few weeks ago, the Mountaineers were ranked in the top 25 and likely would have been smaller underdogs. But a loss to Georgia Southern has set them back a bit, and South Carolina hasn’t lost to a Group of 5 opponent since the Birmingham Bowl against South Florida in 2016.
No Tavien Feaster
The Clemson grad transfer has become USC’s top rusher by yards and touchdowns over the past few weeks while Rico Dowdle has been out with a knee injury, but now that Dowdle is set to return, Feaster is out with a groin injury that had him in and out of the game against Vanderbilt.
The emergence of redshirt freshman Deshaun Fenwick and the return of freshman Kevin Harris will soften the blow of losing Feaster for this game. But he’s been a key piece in South Carolina’s attack and the most consistent contributor in the run game over the course of the season. He will be missed.
Will a fourth receiving option step up?
Two of South Carolina’s top five receiving options went down against Vanderbilt — sophomore wideout Josh Vann is out until a potential bowl game with a broken hand, and junior tight end Nick Muse is out for the year with a torn ACL.
Without those two, the Gamecocks have three established weapons for quarterback Ryan Hilinski to use in the passing game — senior Bryan Edwards, senior Kyle Markway and junior Shi Smith, who’s questionable with a hamstring injury. Edwards has essentially carried the unit this season, with more yards than every other available player combined at the moment.
But App State has a top-10 passing defense by yardage, and there’s still one spot left to fill. Chavis Dawkins has been battling injury. OrTre Smith has been slow to come back from a major knee injury last year. And freshman Xavier Legette has all of four career receptions to his name. Meanwhile, no other tight end besides Markway and Muse has more than one catch.
Can the defense rattle Zac Thomas?
Appalachian State’s offense is run by junior quarterback Zac Thomas, the reigning Sun Belt offensive player of the year. Thomas is a dual-threat QB, throwing for 1,566 yards and 14 touchdowns and rushing for 303 yards and four more scores.
He also takes good care of the ball — just three interceptions all year long — and has a multitude of weapons. Three receivers have more than 300 yards on the season, and two other running backs are over 300 yards as well.
In South Carolina’s four wins this season, the Gamecocks have disrupted their opponents’ passing games to the tune of nine interceptions (compared to two in six losses) and a 51% completion rate (compared to 65.4% in losses). Rattling Thomas will be key.
Will the seniors get to celebrate a salvaged season?
A win over Appalachian State on Senior Night will guarantee the Gamecocks at least a 5-7 record — certainly nothing to brag about, but a far better spot than the program appeared headed after a 1-3 start to the year.
A loss, on the other hand, has South Carolina staring down a 4-6 record with two extremely tough games remaining. Should that happen, the calls for Muschamp’s job could reach a new level.
ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Carolina a 69.7% probability of winning this game. That’s high, but not as high as the Gamecocks’ probability vs. Vanderbilt.
There’s also a symbolic importance of this senior class being the first Muschamp recruited. Getting this victory for them would combat the narrative that the program’s progress has stalled.