South Carolina football: Brutal schedule will prevent big season

South Carolina Gamecocks-Will Muschamp-Jake Bentley-Bryan Edwards-Javon Kinlaw-T.J. Brunson-

The 2019 South Carolina Gamecocks have a season win total of six at 5Dimes. They return 14 total starters from a team that finished 7-6 both straight up and against the spread, but the nation's toughest schedule will make it difficult to surpass last year's seven victories.

Will Muschamp’s first two teams at South Carolina exceeded expectations.

After a 3-9 disaster the year before his arrival, Muschamp’s first team started 2-4.

He made the bold move of taking the redshirt off freshman quarterback Jake Bentley during the open date, and the strategy worked. Bentley led South Carolina to a 4-2 record to close the regular season, earning USC a trip to the Birmingham Bowl. The Gamecocks lost 46-39 to South Florida in overtime, but they covered the number as 10.5-point underdogs.

Most important, Muschamp led his team to a bowl bid and found his quarterback of the future.

Once again in 2017, South Carolina went over its season win total (5.5), one I fully endorsed the entire summer of ’17. It finished 9-4 both straight up and against the spread after posting a 26-19 comeback win over Michigan at the Outback Bowl in Tampa.

Expectations were high in 2018, especially with a healthy Deebo Samuel returning. Samuel had scored six touchdowns in the first 2.5 games of ’17 before going down with a season-ending leg injury.

However, early setbacks vs. Georgia (41-17) and at Kentucky (24-10) took South Carolina out of the SEC East race in early October. With Bentley injured and missing the only game of his career since being handed the starting job, backup QB Michael Scarnecchia threw four touchdowns passes without an interception in a 37-35 comeback victory vs. Missouri.

The momentum of the home win over Missouri was halted the following weekend at Williams-Brice Stadium, where Texas A&M got a late field goal to clip the Gamecocks, 26-23. They responded with a 27-24 home win over Tennessee and then won a 48-44 decision at Ole Miss.

Muschamp’s team appeared to be on its way to a three-game winning streak when it took a 31-14 lead at Florida in the third quarter. The Gators answered with 21 consecutive points, however, and won 35-31.

Bentley threw for more than 500 yards at Clemson, but a defense that was decimated by injuries in November couldn’t provide any resistance to Trevor Lawrence. The Tigers beat USC 56-35, but the Gamecocks took the cash as 26-point underdogs.

Since a Week 3 home game against Marshall had been canceled due to weather, South Carolina scheduled a home game vs. Akron for its regular-season finale. The Gamecocks beat the Zips, 28-3, and earned a Belk Bowl invite in Charlotte.

With Samuel choosing to sit out to stay healthy for the NFL Draft, Virginia trounced USC, 28-0, as a four-point underdog. The Cavaliers enjoyed a 413-251 advantage in total offense and a 28-12 edge in first downs. This result was the exclamation point on a disappointing season.

The page has been turned to 2019, but the schedule is daunting. In fact, Phil Steele’s preseason magazine ranks USC’s slate as the toughest in the nation. Muschamp’s bunch hosts Florida, Appalachian State, Alabama and Clemson in Columbia. The Gamecocks have four SEC road assignments at Missouri, at Georgia, at Tennessee and at Texas A&M.

The Aggies get two weeks to prepare for South Carolina’s trip to Kyle Field, while USC will be playing its sixth game in six weeks. Also, the Gamecocks face one of the country’s premier Group of 5 programs, Appalachian State, the week prior to going to College Station. We’ll also note that a home game vs. Vanderbilt won’t be easy regardless, but especially since the Commodores have an open date beforehand while USC plays at Tennessee.

South Carolina closes the regular season at home vs. Clemson. In the Games of the Year at 5Dimes, the Tigers are 21.5-point road favorites. The Gamecocks are 20.5-point home underdogs vs. Alabama, 20-point ‘dogs at Georgia and pick’em at Tennessee.

5Dimes has South Carolina’s season win total (regular-season games only count toward this bet) at six (under -130, over +100). The offshore shop has the Gamecocks with 100/1 odds to win the SEC and 500/1 odds to win the College Football Playoff.

Before evaluating those gambling options, let’s discuss the Gamecocks’ personnel. They finished 2018 with a 7-6 record both straight up and against the spread, and now bring back 14 total starters with seven apiece on each side of the ball.

Bentley returns for his senior campaign. He owns a 19-13 record in 32 career starts. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound signal caller threw for 3,171 yards with a 27/14 touchdown-to-interception ratio last season. Bentley has 7,385 career passing yards and a 54/30 TD-INT ratio. He’ll break the school’s record for career passing yards held by Todd Ellis if he throws for 2,569 yards in 2019.

Although Samuel left school early, wide receiver Bryan Edwards joined Bentley in coming back for his senior year. Edwards is a big and athletic target who is 6-foot-3 and can make plays in traffic. He had 55 receptions for 846 yards and seven TDs last season. Edwards has 2,229 career receiving yards and can break Alshon Jeffrey’s school record for most career receiving yards if he can rack up 814 yards this year.

Bentley has another elite target in junior Shi Smith, who had 45 catches for 673 yards and four TDs in 2018. As a freshman in ’17, Smith hauled in 29 receptions for 409 yards and three TDs.

Senior TE Kiel Pollard had 15 grabs for 181 yards and two TDs in ’18. Sophomore WR Josh Vann is going to move into a starting role after making 18 catches for 118 yards and one TD as a freshman last year.

Edwards is a second-team All-SEC selection in Steele’s preseason magazine, while the publication has Smith as a fourth-team All-SEC pick. Senior offensive guard Donell Stanley is also a fourth-team preseason All-SEC choice. Stanley has made 26 career starts at center and guard.

Steele has South Carolina’s WRs ranked No. 8 in the SEC and No. 31 nationally in his Unit Rankings. He has the QB position slotted sixth in the SEC and No. 23 in the nation.

South Carolina’s offensive line has a combined 51 starts. Sophomore OT Dylan Wonnum is a former 4-star recruit who started seven games in ’18. Junior OT Sadarius Hutcherson started all 13 games last year and four as a freshman in ’17. There’s concern about the two other spots, as redshirt freshmen Hank Manos and Jovaughn Gwyn are expected to move into starting roles at center and guard, respectively. Steele ranks this offensive line eighth in the SEC and No. 31 in the country.

Although Steele has South Carolina’s RBs 13th in the SEC and unranked in his Top 59 nationally, I think a lot more of this group. Senior Rico Dowdle has 19 career starts and averaged 5.1 yards per carry and 5.3 ypc in ’17 and ’18, respectively. Dowdle had four rushing TDs last year and caught 14 balls for 133 yards and one TD.

Senior Mon Denson rushed for 423 yards and two TDs last season, averaging 5.0 ypc. Muschamp is confident enough in his RBs that he moved senior A.J. Turner to the secondary during spring practice. Turner rushed for 294 yards and two TDs while averaging 6.4 ypc in ’18. In three years playing RB for the Gamecocks, Turner started 11 games and produced 1,324 rushing yards with a 5.1 ypc average. Even if there’s not a featured back and the RBs split the carries, I find it hard to be critical of a group when each back averages at least 5.0 yards per carry.

Muschamp has long been considered one of the best defensive minds in football (college and NFL). That reputation has been well earned over the last two decades, but it has understandably dropped a bit in recent years. Granted, nine defensive players missed most of November last year and many of those were starters. South Carolina gave up 27.2 ppg in 2018, but this season’s ‘D’ will probably be the best Muschamp has had at USC.

Senior Buck (rush DE) D.J. Wonnum missed seven games and parts of others due to injuries last year. He had only 11 tackles, two sacks and 1.5 tackles for loss, but he produced 57 tackles, seven TFLs, six sacks and five passes broken up when he started all 13 games in ’17. Wonnum is a preseason second-team All-SEC selection by Steele.

Steele has senior DT Javon Kinlaw as a first-team All-SEC pick and a third-team All-American. Kinlaw has the talent to dominate a game. In a 37-14 win at Vanderbilt last year for example, Kinlaw had five tackles, three tackles for loss (that resulted in -21 yards), two sacks, two QB hurries, two forced fumbles and one PBU. He finished last year with 38 tackles, 5.5 TFL’s, 4.5 sacks, five PBU, three QB hurries and two forced fumbles.

Senior LB T.J. Brunson was a second-team All-SEC selection last season, when he recorded a team-high 106 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, four sacks, three QB hurries, one forced fumble and one PBU. Like Wonnum, Brunson is a preseason second-team All-SEC choice in Steele’s magazine.

Junior LB Sherrod Greene appears poised for a breakout campaign after finishing second on the team in tackles with 73 last year. He also had a pick-six, one fumble recovery, three TFLs, two PBU, one forced fumble and one QB hurry. Steele has South Carolina’s LBs ranked seventh in the SEC and No. 31 nationally. He has the DL group ranked fifth in the SEC and No. 14 in the country.

Sophomore Jaycee Horn anchors a secondary that dealt with injuries galore in ’18. Horn started 10 games as a true freshman, producing 45 tackles, four TFL’s, two sacks and eight PBU. Steele has Horn as a preseason fourth-team All-SEC choice.

The secondary is hoping to get a boost from two transfers. Junior safety Jamel Cook sat out ’18 after transferring from Southern California, while Rice grad transfer safety JT Ibe is hoping to make an impact. Ibe arrived last year and had nine tackles in four starts, but he went down with a season-ending injury and was granted another year by the NCAA. He had 121 tackles in 25 starts for the Owls from 2015-17. Steele ranks the Gamecocks’ DBs seventh in the SEC and No. 46 in the nation.

Steele has South Carolina’s special teams units tabbed eighth in the SEC and No. 29 nationally. He has senior punter Joseph Charlton as a preseason fourth-team All-SEC pick, but Charlton garnered second-team All-SEC honors last year when he averaged 44.8 yards per punt. Junior placekicker Parker White was solid as a freshman when he buried 13-of-16 field-goal attempts. However, White struggled mightily last season when he made merely 14-of-25 field goal attempts.

I’m confident South Carolina will beat North Carolina as a 7.5-point favorite in Charlotte in Week 1. Likewise, I believe the Gamecocks will prevail in four home games against Charleston Southern, Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Appalachian State. On the flip side, I see loses for USC vs. Alabama, at UGA, at Texas A&M and vs. Clemson. That leaves it at 5-4 with three swing games: at Missouri, vs. Florida and at Tennessee.

When South Carolina travels to Neyland Stadium, it will do so after playing at Georgia and hosting Florida. However, the Volunteers will be coming off a three-week stretch that looks like this: vs. Georgia, vs. Mississippi State and at Alabama. I lean to the Gamecocks to win in Knoxville, where Muschamp has enjoyed plenty of success (see notes below).

USC can certainly beat the Gators at home and it is 3-0 against Missouri during Muschamp’s tenure, including a 31-13 win at Mizzou in ’17. Nevertheless, South Carolina’s win total is a pass for me. I think the Gamecocks finish 6-6 or 7-5, but I like to have a 1.5-game confidence cushion when betting over or under on a win total.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

  • Muschamp is 22-17 SU and ATS since replacing Steve Spurrier in Columbia.
  • South Carolina has covered the spread in six straight games as a road underdog.
  • Muschamp is undefeated in seven games against Tennessee as a head coach.
  • The Gamecocks are winless with a 1-2 spread record in three games against both Georgia and Clemson on Muschamp’s watch. They’ve lost all six of those games by margins of at least 14 points.
  • Steele ranks Kinlaw as the fifth-best available defensive tackle for the 2020 NFL Draft. He has Bentley as the ninth-best QB, Edwards as the 23rd-best WR and Smith as the 28th-best WR.
  • 5Dimes has Bentley listed with 150/1 odds to win the Heisman Trophy.

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