Here’s an odd but accurate indicator of the fact South Carolina’s 2018 football schedule could be a lot tougher than it actually is: ESPN’s Todd McShay released a very early NFL mock draft that featured 14 SEC players in the first round but the Gamecocks will face only six of those players in the regular season this fall.
With no Alabama or Auburn or LSU on the regular season schedule, here are the top seven players South Carolina will face in the 2018 regular season, listed by order on schedule:
DeAndre Baker, Georgia cornerback
Start looking forward now to Baker versus South Carolina wide receiver Deebo Samuel. Baker, 5-foot-11, 180 pounds, had three interceptions last year and allowed a passer rating of 38.7 when he was targeted (according to Pro Football Focus). He spurned early entry into the NFL Draft last year, and you can be sure plenty of scouts will be watching Samuel versus Baker in Williams-Brice Stadium on the second Saturday of the season.
Josh Allen, Kentucky linebacker
The 6-foot-5, 252-pounder turned down a chance to be an NFL Draft pick this spring in hopes of becoming a first-rounder next spring. Allen had seven sacks last year (and has 14 in the last two seasons) despite not having a sack in the final five games of 2018. He had 66 tackles a year ago and will be the focal point of the Wildcats defense this year.
Drew Lock, Missouri quarterback
Lock set the SEC’s single-season record for passing touchdowns last year with 44. That he did it with such little fanfare speaks to the fact that Missouri is not a terribly threatening opponent even with Lock under center. His talent is undeniable and his statistics will be gaudy when he’s done, but Tigers fans have been wondering for a while now how much better he actually makes Missouri. Lock has one more collegiate season to see.
Trey Smith, Tennessee offensive lineman
Ole Miss offensive tackle Greg Little might be a better offensive tackle, but he might just be an older offensive tackle. Little, a senior who also is on the Gamecocks schedule, could be a top 10 selection in next year’s draft, but Smith is an up-and-comer in the league. As a true freshman last year, he started all 12 games on the offensive line, including three at left tackle. He’ll be a name South Carolina fans hear a lot for a while, and he’ll be an interesting matchup for D.J. Wonnum.
A.J. Brown, Ole Miss wide receiver
This is the kind of player that worries Will Muschamp because of the concern around South Carolina’s secondary and because of how good Brown is. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound junior has been listed by ESPN’s Mel Kiper as the top offensive prospect for the 2019 NFL Draft. He led the SEC with 75 catches for 1,252 yards last year and had 11 touchdown catches on top of that. It will be interesting to see who matches up with Brown on Nov 3.
Dexter Lawrence, Clemson defensive tackle
All four of the Tigers defensive linemen could potentially be on this list, but Lawrence is a good starting point. The 6-foot-4, 340-pounder clogs up the middle along with Christian Wilkins. He’s a junior but this likely will be his last season in Clemson. He’s already projected as a top five pick in several 2019 NFL Mock Drafts.
Clelin Ferrell, Clemson defensive end
While Lawrence and Wilkins are taking up a lot of attention in the middle, Ferrell is going to be difficult to deal with on the end. The 6-foot-5, 260-pounder had 9 1/2 sacks last year and surprised some by returning for his junior year (he was eligible for the draft as a redshirt sophomore). Another projected first round pick next spring, he will be expected to have a double-digit sack season this year.