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SEC Preview: South Carolina

By Southern Pigskin Staff
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Matt Smith previews the 2020 South Carolina Gamecocks.

SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Head Coach: Will Muschamp; fifth season at South Carolina, ninth season overall (54-46 overall, 32-32 SEC)
Offensive Coordinator: Mike Bobo (first season)
Defensive Coordinator: Travaris Robinson (fifth season)
2019 Recap: 4-8 (3-5 SEC)
Things fell apart early and often for the 2019 Gamecocks. A late collapse in the opener against North Carolina saw quarterback Jake Bentley’s South Carolina career come to an end. True freshman Ryan Hilinski took over in Week 2, and Bentley moved on to Utah as a graduate transfer. Facing the toughest schedule in the country, six of South Carolina’s eight losses came by 11 points or more. The season was highlighted by a monumental road upset of Georgia, but that win was followed by five losses in six games to end the season. Hilinski showed some promise, but had plenty of true freshman moments, as the offense failed to reach 30 points in any game against an FBS opponent. First-round NFL Draft pick Javon Kinlaw was a force on the defensive front, but overall, the Gamecocks defense was nothing better than average.

2020 Schedule
Sept. 26 – TENNESSEE (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Oct. 3 – at Florida (Noon ET, ESPN)
Oct. 10 – at Vanderbilt
Oct. 17 – AUBURN
Oct. 24 – at LSU
Oct. 31 – Idle
Nov. 7 – TEXAS A&M
Nov. 14 – at Ole Miss
Nov. 21 – MISSOURI
Nov. 28 – GEORGIA
Dec. 5 – at Kentucky

Under Center
The Bentley era ended one week into the 2019 season, opening the door for true freshman Ryan Hilinski. The prized recruit looked every bit like a true freshman in the SEC, showing off a big arm but being marred by inconsistencies. After scoring 72 points against hapless Charleston Southern in Week 2, the Gamecocks maxed out at 27 points in the final 10 games. Hilinski was thrown to the fire last season, so judgement should be reserved, but he has yet to prove he’s the long-term answer.

There are other options for Will Muschamp and new coordinator Mike Bobo. Collin Hill, who played for Bobo at Colorado State, joined the program as a graduate transfer. Like Hilinski a year ago, true freshman Luke Doty arrives in Columbia with plenty of hype. Doty has looked the part during preseason camp. Doty should see time this season, but this is a Hilinski vs. Hill battle for the starting role.

In The Trenches
The Gamecocks suffered a massive loss with the departure of a first-round NFL Draft pick in Kinlaw. The beefy defensive tackle helped South Carolina hold Kentucky and Georgia to a combined 24 points in the two-game stretch that highlighted the mostly forgettable 2019 season. Senior Keir Thomas takes over Kinlaw’s role, and while experienced, he’s coming off of an injury last season. The linebacking corps is adequate, led by junior middle linebacker and 2019 leading tackler Ernest Jones.

The offensive line is serviceable but nothing special. Left guard Sadarius Hutcherson is the best player of a unit that brings back three starters. Redshirt freshman Jakai Moore could slide in at left tackle after getting some work at right tackle late last season. The Gamecocks will want to improve a running game that ranked tenth in the SEC last season, so the spotlight is on this unit to take some pressure off an uncertain quarterback situation.

On The Edge
Yikes. Top wide receiver Bryan Edwards is gone. The top three rushers are gone. Freshman running back Marshawn Lloyd, expected to start right away, was lost for the season in August with a knee injury. Shi Smith will be the top target for whoever emerges under center after a 43-catch junior season a year ago. Tight end Nick Muse’s role will expand in Bobo’s offense, and the Gamecocks brought in tight end Adam Prentice, who also played for Bobo at Colorado State.

The secondary is Muschamp’s pride and joy, and this could be the best one he’s had in his five seasons at South Carolina. Juniors Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu have both played a lot in their first two seasons and now amount to grizzled veterans entering their junior seasons. R.J. Roderick and Jammie Robinson are an effective safety tandem as well. Coverage and rush need to work together, so if the Gamecocks can find a pass rush, this unit should flourish. The best news? All four projected starters should be back in 2021.

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

Schedule Analysis
Well, there’s no Clemson at least. The Gamecocks had the toughest schedule in the nation last year, so they’re accustomed to gauntlets. Their two added games this season are Auburn and Ole Miss, with Texas A&M and LSU already on the original schedule. Tennessee is the only other SEC East team to play three of the top four teams in the SEC West. South Carolina usually plays Georgia early in the season, which would have been a plus this year with the turnover in Athens, but that game isn’t until Thanksgiving weekend this season. Anything better than 2-4 after six games would be a big success heading into a manageable final month.

Season Prediction
There are too many concerns for the Gamecocks to crack the top three in the division, but .500 is a realistic goal. Hilinski will emerge as the best option at quarterback, although the issues at the skill positions could turn this offense into a grinding unit that relies on the offensive line. I will call for a fast start with upsets wins over Tennessee and Auburn at home, but road losses to Ole Miss and Kentucky late in the season will prevent South Carolina from avoiding a second straight losing season.

Record: 4-6
CFP Ranking: NR