It will be difficult for Will Muschamp's Gamecocks to improve on last season's success, but there is reason for optimism
The South Carolina Gamecocks are set to open fall camp in a few days, officially marking year three of the Will Muschamp era in Columbia. An era that has seen marked improvement in each of Muschamp’s first two seasons on the job, culminating in a nine-win campaign last season and an impressive come-from-behind victory over Michigan in the Outback Bowl.
It’s a trend that Gamecock fans hope to see continue. The good news is that there is reason for optimism regarding Muschamp’s chances to raise the bar again in 2018. So much so, that some view South Carolina as a dark horse candidate to win the SEC East. That optimism is primarily sparked by the return of eight starters on offense. Most notably, quarterback Jake Bentley, and elite playmaker Deebo Samuel (above, right) at wide receiver. The hope is that new offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon’s up-tempo system will take Bentley and the South Carolina offense to new heights, which is plausible with so many weapons returning.
But even if that does happen, it will be no easy task for the Gamecocks to improve on their nine wins from last season. And a compelling argument can even be made as to why South Carolina will take a step backward in 2018. Critics are quick to point out the key departures on all three levels of Will Muschamp’s’ defense, particularly in the secondary. A lackluster rushing attack that ranked 110th in the nation last season remains a concern. And depth could be a major issue on both sides of the football. The potential pitfalls that come with playing an SEC schedule must be considered as well, not to mention the season-ending matchup on the road against powerhouse rival Clemson.
That begs the question: Can the Gamecocks once again rise to the occasion and surpass expectations, or will year three of the Muschamp era result in a step in the wrong direction? Athlon asked a few editors and college football contributors to share their realistic win/loss projection for South Carolina in 2018.
South Carolina Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2018
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Thanks to Georgia’s marked improvement in coach Kirby Smart’s second year, South Carolina’s jump to nine wins was overshadowed last fall. The Gamecocks did have a little good fortune on their side, using a plus-11 turnover margin to win six games by eight points or less. Even though there could be some regression in close contests, South Carolina could overcome that by being a better overall team. Eight starters are back from an offense that averaged only 24.2 points a game last fall. There’s too much firepower in place to finish that low in the conference, so coach Will Muschamp handed the offensive coordinator duties to Bryan McClendon. A new up-tempo approach should help quarterback Jake Bentley, and the receiving corps is one of the best in college football thanks to the return of Deebo Samuel from injury. Muschamp has a few holes to fill on defense, but a good foundation is in place with five returning starters. Georgia, Florida and Clemson could be the only games where South Carolina is an underdog in 2018. I’m guessing there’s an upset or two along the way, dropping the Gamecocks to 8-4 overall in 2018.
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
South Carolina is a popular pick to finish second in the SEC East, but we pegged the Gamecocks for third in the division. The Week 2 home date with Georgia will be the biggest game of the Will Muschamp era. Even with a loss to the Bulldogs, South Carolina will have a great opportunity to be 5–1 when Texas A&M comes to town on Oct. 13. The trip to Florida on Nov. 10 will go a long way in determining the final pecking order in the East.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
It's going to be strange to see a Will Muschamp-coached team be powered by its offense. Such is the case with the Gamecocks though, given that core of QB Jake Bentley, a deep running backs group and the electric Deebo Samuel back at wide receiver. The offensive line should be solid and there's much better SEC-caliber depth than we're used to seeing. Not sure if the Gamecocks can truly compete for that SEC East title but getting Georgia early is better than getting the Bulldogs late and South Carolina certainly has a shot at making things interesting in 2018.
Rob McVey (@Rob_UTVOLS)
We will know sooner than later if South Carolina is a legitimate contender when Georgia visits Columbia on Sept. 8. But I already believe this team has the potential to be really good in 2018, if not great. Jake Bentley should finally have everything he needs to jump-start the Gamecock offense and take that much-needed leap forward. The healthy return of Deebo Samuel is huge, not just on offense, but in the return game as well. Defensively, there are a few question marks. However, the cupboard is far from bare, and Will Muschamp's track record speaks for itself on that side of the football. The schedule is tough, but certainly manageable. My only concern is South Carolina’s lack of depth and overall experience behind the starters. Their ability (or inability) to stay relatively healthy throughout the season could make or break their 2018 campaign.