Coming off of a 9-4 season that included an Outback Bowl victory over the Michigan Wolverines, 26-19, the Gamecocks are looking to continue their upward trajectory in 2018.
There are still unknowns about this team going into fall camp. However, there are also quite a few signs that point in the Garnet and Black’s favor. With Georgia losing over 30 players from a National Championship runner-up team, they seem primed to take a step back this year.
Florida and Tennessee are both coming off of four-win seasons and coaching staff turnovers in the off-season. Missouri has Drew Lock but he lost his top wide receiver from last year and also his offensive coordinator, Josh Heupel. Kentucky still has Benny Snell Jr. at running back and Josh Allen at linebacker but not much else. Vanderbilt has one of better and more experienced quarterbacks in the league in Kyle Shurmur but they will be hurt from the departure of Ralph Webb and Oren Burks in their respective positions.
The SEC East has arguably been “down” the past couple of seasons but looks to be improving. Still, the upcoming football season looks to hold some exciting potential for Will Muschamp and staff.
South Carolina hasn’t won the SEC East since 2010. They ended up getting pummeled by Auburn in the Championship game though, losing 56-17 at the hands of Cam Newton and the Tigers. With Georgia recruiting at a high level plus Florida and Tennessee improving, this upcoming season could be the Gamecocks best chance to reach Atlanta since 2010.
Here are my three keys to South Carolina winning the SEC East in 2018:
1. Jump on Georgia early
The last two years, Georgia and South Carolina have met in November and October. That’s about halfway through the regular season. Most years, the two teams would meet in an early September game. In 2018, it’s back to the typical time of year for this inter-conference rivalry.
The Bulldogs will visit Williams-Brice in the second week of the season for a 3:30 kickoff on CBS. There’s no doubt UGA is the pre-season favorite to win the East. However, this is a huge opportunity for the Gamecocks to get a head start in the division race.
A win over the Dawgs would virtually give South Carolina a two-game lead in the division due to the fact that they would own the tiebreaker if each team ended conference play with only one loss.
With great players like Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Isaiah Wynn, Roquan Smith and many others no longer in Athens, Georgia will be without a lot of greatly talented experience. Since the game is as early as it is in the season, a more experienced South Carolina team at home should have an edge in this matchup.
No Hayden Hurst will hurt but the Gamecocks do get back Deebo Samuel who had vaulted into the Heisman discussion last season after just two games before getting injured.
This game could ultimately be the deciding factor in who gets to represent the East division in Atlanta this year.
2. Develop a consistent running game
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The Gamecocks have not had a consistently successful running attack since Mike Davis left the program. The past couple seasons have been ‘by committee’ in the backfield and not in a good way.
In 2016, South Carolina had 12 different players attempt at least one rush on the season for a combined average of just 3.7 yards per carry and a total of 1,747 yards rushing on the year (134.4 per game). Last season saw only 10 different Gamecocks attempt a rush. They had a combined average of 3.9 yards per carry and a total of 1,588 total yards rushing for the season (122.2 per game).
Five different players carried the ball at least 41 times last year, four of which were running backs with the other being Jake Bentley. The running backs had a total of EIGHT rushing touchdowns and 1,405 total yards rushing (4.7 yards per carry). Bentley alone had SIX rushing touchdowns.
All five of the leading rushers from last year’s team return in 2018. In order for the Gamecocks to really push for an East division title, one of them needs to step up and stand out.
Rico Dowdle is the most explosive of the returning backs but has dealt with a couple injuries. Ty’Son Williams is the most physical. AJ Turner is the most consistent. Mon Denson has made the most of his attempts but is clearly the fourth best of this bunch.
A new, fast-paced, up-tempo offense will change the look of the offense. This should force at least one of these guys to create some separation from the others.
Without a consistent running attack, the Gamecocks offense will never reach its full potential. If not fixed, it could ultimately cost them a chance to play for an SEC Championship.
3. Avoid the injury bug
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The 2017 season yielded some painful (no pun intended) injuries for the Gamecocks as a whole. Deebo Samuel was lost for the year in the third game against Kentucky with a broken leg. The next week, Bryson Allen-Williams was ruled out for the season with a shoulder injury.
Two starting offensive linemen in Cory Helms and Zack Bailey missed multiple games each with various injuries. KC Crosby suffered the same injury as Deebo vs Arkansas and then just another week later, Rico Dowdle also went down with the exact same injury.
Some other notable players who missed time due to injuries were Terry Googer, Jamyest Williams, Shi Smith and DJ Smith.
Going into 2018, South Carolina has talent at every position. However, some is inexperienced and there isn’t a great amount of depth at any position besides wide receiver.
The Gamecocks have to stay healthy to compete for a trip to Atlanta. While the schedule is manageable, the injury bug is one thing that will certainly undo Carolina’s chances.