The strengths, and concerns, for Gamecocks heading into season opener
The hard truth for South Carolina football fans entering the 2017 season is that the Gamecocks could have a better team and still finish with the same regular season record (6-6) as they did last year. With that in mind, I thought I’d provide five milestones of progress that fans can track outside of the won-loss record.
If USC does end up .500 in the regular season, but improves on all or most of these benchmarks, it will be a sign of steps in the right direction in the second year under coach Will Muschamp.
If this is the year that Muschamp has the offense and the quarterback that he’s been waiting for, it’s time to prove it. Sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley & Co. (Deebo Samuel, Hayden Hurst, etc.) look poised for a big year, and that means getting into the end zone. South Carolina was last in the SEC and 116th in the nation last year with 33 offensive touchdowns. To put that in perspective, Alabama scored 12 touchdowns last year on defense and special teams. The Gamecocks have the personnel to be aggressive on offense, and they need to be.
Improve Rush Defense
For all the talk of South Carolina’s lack of a pass rush, the hardest defensive pill to swallow for Muschamp was his team’s inability to stop the run last season, particularly against quality opponents. For a program that promotes the pillars of effort, toughness and discipline, having a flimsy rush defense is unacceptable. Gamecock opponents averaged 4.8 yards per carry last year, which ranked 92nd in the nation. Muschamp’s staff hasn’t recruited the defensive line into better shape yet, but South Carolina must improve on that number this year no matter the personnel.
A football team can’t be in a good place in the SEC if it’s behind the Wildcats, and that’s where South Carolina is right now. The Gamecocks have dropped three in a row to Kentucky. To put that in perspective, the only other time the Wildcats have beaten an SEC East opponent three or more times in a row was from 1909-14 when UK beat Tennessee five consecutive times. In the past 40 years, Kentucky has beaten Florida a total of three times. The Gamecocks must reverse this particular curse, and they will have that chance soon. Kentucky visits Williams-Brice Stadium on Sept. 16, South Carolina’s first home game of the season.
Close Gap on Clemson
No one, except maybe Muschamp and his coaching staff, expects South Carolina to beat the Tigers this year, but the game can’t go like it did a year ago. The Gamecocks were steamrolled 56-7 in a game that provided a startling look at the gap between the programs just three years after South Carolina’s five-game winning streak was stopped. Clemson will be without Deshaun Watson, but still probably will come to Williams-Brice Stadium on Nov. 25 with a top 10 or 15 team. Muschamp has to prove his team is moving closer to the defending national champions rather than treading water in the state.
Win a Bowl Game
It was interesting to watch former coach Steve Spurrier’s thinking about bowl games change during his tenure at South Carolina. Early in Spurrier’s career, when he was playing for titles on a regular basis, the outcome of bowl games without championships on the line didn’t matter much to him. However, as he turned around the Gamecocks program, he began to appreciate the importance of winning the last game, even if it was in Shreveport, La. Under Spurrier, the Gamecocks won four consecutive bowls. It’s been two years without a bowl victory and the subsequent momentum boost that comes along with it.
Who: USC vs. N.C. State
When: 3 p.m. Saturday
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte
TV: ESPN Line: N.C. State by 4 1/2