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2019 SEC Preview: South Carolina Gamecocks

By Matt Smith
SouthernPigskin.com
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Matt Smith breaks down everything you need to know about the 2019 South Carolina Gamecocks.

Head Coach: Will Muschamp – fourth year at South Carolina; eighth year overall (50-38 overall, 29-27 SEC)

Offensive Coordinator: Bryan McClendon (second season)

Defensive Coordinator: Travaris Robinson (fourth season)

2018 Record: 7-6 (4-4 SEC); lost to Virginia in Belk Bowl

Returning Starters: 12 (7 offense, 5 defense)

2019 Schedule

Aug. 31 – vs. North Carolina (Charlotte) (3:30 p.m. ET, ESPN)
Sept. 7 – CHARLESTON SOUTHERN (Noon ET, SEC Network)
Sept. 14 – ALABAMA (3:30 p.m. ET, CBS)
Sept. 21 – at Missouri
Sept. 28 – KENTUCKY

Oct. 12 – at Georgia
Oct. 19 – FLORIDA
Oct. 26 – at Tennessee

Nov. 2 – VANDERBILT
Nov. 9 – APPALACHIAN STATE
Nov. 16 – at Texas A&M
Nov. 30 – CLEMSON

What We Know

-Jake Bentley is a solid SEC starting quarterback. He suffers a bit from Jake Browning syndrome, named after the former Washington quarterback who had a huge sophomore season for the Huskies but did not elevate his game in his final two seasons. Progress isn’t linear, and Bentley simply may have taken a huge jump as a sophomore and has since just maintained rather than grown. That’s OK, but that has made him somewhat underappreciated in the SEC. His 14 interceptions as a junior were far too many. Cut down on turnovers and be more effective in the red zone (South Carolina hasn’t scored touchdowns on more than 60 percent of its red-zone opportunities in the Bentley era), and Bentley will have a solid final season in Columbia.

-If D.J. Wonnum can stay healthy this season, this defensive line could resemble the ones Muschamp had at Florida. Wonnum had a cranky ankle that more or less limited him for the entire 2018 season, but the senior edge rusher is a force when at full speed. Couple Wonnum with undervalued tackle Javon Kinlaw, and the Gamecocks front is going to cause some problems. Combining talent and depth, this is easily the best defensive line Muschamp has fielded at South Carolina. The sack totals have gradually climbed under Muschamp, but this group is good enough for the Gamecocks to top 30 sacks for the first time since 2012.

-Will Muschamp wins close games. OK, so that wasn’t really the case at Florida, but since arriving at South Carolina in 2016, the Gamecocks have played 18 one-score games and won 13 of them. The biggest issue for South Carolina this season, with a schedule that includes five teams likely to be in the preseason top 10, may be to get itself into close games. If they can hang in there with teams like Florida and Texas A&M, the Gamecocks have a veteran quarterback, a good kicker in Parker White, and plenty of confidence. That could be the difference in whether or not this team survives their gauntlet with a third straight winning season.

What We Don’t Know

-I’m not sure what to make of this running game. It’s fine, but it’s underwhelming. Rico Dowdle is a capable SEC running back, but 5.3 yards per carry is nothing special. Dowdle and fellow senior Mon Denson combined for more than 200 carries last season, so there’s plenty of rock-toting experience, but there’s isn’t a game-changer here. The other concern is can someone emerge as a factor in the passing game? Dowdle only averaged one reception per game last season. Like the corps of running back, the offensive line is solid but not spectacular.

-The secondary must take a major leap forward. It was a terribly green unit in 2018, and the Gamecocks only forced six interceptions – three by departed corner Rashad Fenton. There’s talent here. It’s not LSU or Alabama talent, but Muschamp has recruited well at the position that is his bread and butter. Sophomore corner Jaycee Horn has the spotlight on him, and even true freshman Cameron Smith is going to be asked to be a factor. Muschamp and Travaris Robinson would probably trade allowing more big plays this year if it means the secondary can also force more turnovers.

-Will the receiving corps improve without Deebo Samuel? That’s no knock on Samuel, who was a phenomenal college player, but there’s more proven experience this year and last. Bryan Edwards got overshadowed by Samuel last season, but he’s a legitimate No. 1 target in the SEC. Junior Shi Smith has developed a nice rapport with Bentley. One of sophomore Josh Vann or sophomore OrTre Smith needs to emerge. Smith took a medical redshirt last season after starting 10 games in 2017. If a viable third option for Bentley develops, this unit should flourish.

Ranking The Units

1. Quarterbacks
2. Defensive Line
3. Receivers
4. Offensive Line
5. Running Backs
6. Linebackers
7. Defensive Backs

Schedule Analysis

National Ranking: 1
SEC Ranking: 1
Swing Game: Sept. 21 at Missouri
Trap Game: Nov. 2 vs. Vanderbilt

Yikes. Clemson, Georgia, and Texas A&M are on the schedule every year, and this year the Gamecocks have to visit both Athens and College Station. The SEC rotation brings Alabama on board the slate as well for the SEC opener for the teams’ first meeting since South Carolina’s upset of the top-ranked Tide in 2010. Even the non-conference schedule is tricky, with North Carolina and Appalachian State posing some tough tests. If the Gamecocks finish 7-5, Muschamp should probably be SEC coach of the year.

Season Prediction

The Gamecocks will handle September as well as possible, winning key games against Missouri and Kentucky to reach October at 4-1. Then things will go downhill, as Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee will deal the Gamecocks an 0-for-October. With Texas A&M and Clemson the final two opponents, that means they’re can’t be a stumble against Vanderbilt or Appalachian State for this team to reach the postseason. The Gamecocks will be playing football in December again, but only barely.

Overall Record: 6-6
SEC Record: 3-5
Final CFP Ranking: NR
Bowl: Music City Bowl vs. N.C. State

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.