Will Muschamp likes his team entering his fourth year at South Carolina.
"I thought we culminated a very good spring," Muschamp said after the Gamecocks' spring game. "We've got a deeper team than we have had, more competitive depth at every position. When guys come to practice every day knowing they have to strain to maintain their position, that helps your football team."
He can't like his team’s schedule, though. South Carolina has strengthened the program's foundation in three seasons, and the Gamecocks have a roster that should be competitive in the SEC. The problem in 2019 is that they still don't have a roster that figures to be competitive with Clemson and Alabama and Georgia, and maybe even Texas A&M and an improving Florida team — and they play them all this season.
"Everybody knows what kind of schedule we've got," senior offensive lineman Donell Stanley says. "We've got a schedule that can make us or break us. We just have to have the mindset every week of coming out and wanting to dominate, and if you aren't with it, you need to leave."
Muschamp was fired after four seasons at Florida's head coach. That will not happen at South Carolina. He is 22–17 overall and 12–12 in the SEC in his first three years, compiling more wins in that initial time period than any coach in school history. The blemish on Muschamp’s resume: He is 1–11 against ranked teams at South Carolina. The good news (and bad news) is that he'll have plenty of chances to improve that record this fall.
Previewing South Carolina's Offense for 2019
Senior Jake Bentley has 7,385 passing yards and 54 touchdowns in 32 career starts, but he also has 30 career interceptions and shares his head coach’s struggles against ranked teams. Bentley is 1–10 in his career against ranked teams, although he did torch eventual national champion Clemson for 510 yards and five touchdown passes last season in a loss.
"The bottom line is we need to take care of the ball. We had 14 interceptions [last year]," Muschamp says. "They are not all on Jake, but that is far too many turnovers from that position, and he understands that. That's the No. 1 area where we've got to make improvement as a football team."
Wide receiver Deebo Samuel is off to the NFL, leaving South Carolina searching for a new No. 1 receiver. Senior Bryan Edwards, who has a career average of 13.7 yards per catch, is ready to fill that void. Teamed with junior Shi Smith, he will give the Gamecocks a good top of the order in the receiving corps. However, given the amount that offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon wants to throw the ball and the pace at which he'd like to be able to play, South Carolina will need at least six players ready every Saturday.
Running back is the least proven position on the offensive side of the ball. The Gamecocks haven't finished higher than 12th in the SEC in rushing in Muschamp’s three seasons. Ty'Son Williams transferred out of the program after the 2018 season, seemingly clearing the way for senior Rico Dowdle to be the featured back. However, Dowdle, who has a 5.2 yards per carry career average, was limited through spring by a hamstring injury.
"More than anything, we need just consistency at the position, run through contact," Muschamp says. "In our league, you're not going to be able to block everybody. There is going to be a free hat in the box at some point, and you have to be able to make a guy miss, and that's something we need to be able to do better consistently."
Preivewing South Carolina's Defense for 2019
A defensive line that coordinator Travaris Robinson calls "our most talented unit" paired with two rising stars at cornerback in Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu give South Carolina a chance to have the best defense of the Muschamp era.
Senior defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw has the kind of first-step quickness that could put him in the first round of next spring's NFL Draft if he plays to his potential this fall, and end D.J. Wonnum returns after a season essentially lost to an ankle injury, to give the Gamecocks a pass-rushing presence on the outside.
Maybe the biggest surprise of last season was how poorly the linebackers played. Senior T.J. Brunson returns in the middle for what he hopes is a redemptive season.
On the back end, Horn (6'1") and Mukuamu (6'4") have a chance to be special. "Those two guys are phenomenal," former South Carolina cornerback Rashad Fenton says. "Both of them have great size that I wish I had."
Previewing South Carolina's Specialists for 2019
Junior placekicker Parker White, who was placed on scholarship in the spring, and senior punter Joseph Charlton give the Gamecocks a solid kicking combination. The biggest special teams question is who will replace the dynamic Samuel as kickoff returner.
Reasonable and realistic South Carolina fans are marking the 2020 season as a big one for Muschamp. The program, which recently opened a $50 million football operations building, has made steady progress on and off the field despite last year's 7–6 record. However, it's tough sledding for the Gamecocks to be stuck geographically between rivals Clemson and Georgia, which are both dominant at the moment.