It was never about wins, although of course it was about wins.
South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer knew that he would only be judged by how many games he won, even in his first season, but he also knew that wins would be hard to come by in 2021. He was taking over the remnants of a program that had won only six games over two seasons, one with a culture that resembled the bottom of a well.
He couldn't worry about victories right away. He had to rebuild the passion, the excitement, the commitment, then start to eye real progress in Year 2.
Beamer did that, in surprisingly short order. Call it a byproduct of Gamecock fans desperately wanting to believe in something after the dismal end of the Will Muschamp Era.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the predicted three-to-four-win season …
The Gamecocks won. Not a whole lot. Not against the teams like Georgia or Clemson that USC really wants to beat. They were blown out four times and had to pull off a miracle comeback to beat Vanderbilt at home.
But as they demolished North Carolina 38–21 in the Duke's Mayo Bowl to finish 7–6, winning three of their last five games, the cheers were back. And Beamer added to it with a strong group of newcomers, again bedecked with transfers, one a former Heisman Trophy favorite who gave USC its most decorated prospect in program history the moment he signed on the dotted line.
"It's a great statement about where we are. To win a bowl game, to go into the offseason — with so much momentum, so much belief with our players — I can't wait for them to go back and get right back to work," Beamer says. "We had some setbacks, certainly. Every Sunday after a loss, you always worry, 'What's the mentality going to be?' Every week, they came back to work."
Previewing South Carolina's Offense for 2022
A year after starting four different quarterbacks, Beamer struck gold by plucking former Oklahoma star quarterback Spencer Rattler from the transfer portal. Rattler, a wunderkind as a freshman and Heisman Trophy front-runner entering last season, lost his job at OU due to too many turnovers last year and decided on a fresh start under a coach with whom he already had a relationship.
The hope is that a true game-changer under center can stabilize an offense that finished 13th in passing, 11th in rushing and 13th in scoring in the SEC last year. Rattler's mobility and NFL arm provide a new dimension to the Gamecocks, but USC knows full well he can't be a one-man show.
The Gamecocks return their entire offensive line, but it was a line that produced just six 100-yard rushing games in 13 tries, and that was with 2020 SEC leading rusher Kevin Harris. It was one of the worst pass-blocking lines in the league and gave up 31 sacks. That will be the biggest question mark.
USC restocked its running backs with Wake Forest transfer Christian Beal-Smith, and it returns MarShawn Lloyd, a heralded recruit two years ago who missed his entire first season (2020) with a torn ACL. The Gamecocks have other weapons — receiver Josh Vann led the team in catches, yards and touchdowns, while tight end Jaheim Bell was a major contributor, hauling in two TDs in the bowl game — but they can't be utilized if Rattler can't stay upright.
Previewing South Carolina's Defense for 2022
USC had the best pass defense in the SEC last year, but it came with the Gamecocks' dirty little secret: Despite their marvelous gift at recording takeaways (an SEC-high 24 interceptions/recovered fumbles), teams didn't have to pass against USC. Because its run defense was so lousy.
The Gamecocks lost some talent on the edges but return the bulk of their interior line and linebackers, although like the O-line, does that matter if it was so poor last year? The hope is that the two Jordans, Strachan and Burch, can hurry the QB and that Zacch Pickens, Rick Sandidge, Tonka Hemingway and Co. can handle the interior. Sherrod Greene, returning from two years of injuries, can help sixth-year senior Brad Johnson handle the linebacker spots.
The secondary returns Cam Smith, one of the SEC's most underrated players, alongside fellow corner Darius Rush and safety R.J. Roderick. Those three held together a battered unit last year, and Beamer added Devonni Reed (Central Michigan) from the transfer portal.
Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2022
Previewing South Carolina's Specialists for 2022
The Gamecocks lost the program's career scoring leader, Parker White, to graduation, but Mitch Jeter, a scholarship kicker, has been prepping for this moment for two years. He is trying to hold off Alex Herrera for placekicking duties. Punter Kai Kroeger has been one of the SEC's best and returns for his junior year.
Smiles and fun are back at USC, and with them come raised expectations. Rattler gives the program a spotlight it hasn't had since 2010-13, when it won 42 games under Steve Spurrier. But the trenches are suspect, and the schedule is again murderous (USC's first two SEC games are at Arkansas and hosting defending national champion Georgia).
But Beamer has an infectious enthusiasm for the job and answered any questions about if he'd be overwhelmed with trying to make a historically mediocre program good in his first year. In some ways, it's harder to follow a surprising season with a better one, but Beamer already shut up his critics once.