1st-Year South Carolina Quarterbacks in the SEC Era

Jake Bentley took off the red shirt and put on the garnet shirt halfway through the season last year. The timing fortunately coincided with the return of Deebo Samuel and Rico Dowdle from injury, and the three helped lead a dramatic turnaround in the Gamecocks offense. Prior to Jake Bentley getting behind center the Gamecocks averaged 14 points per game; afterwards they averaged 26.6. Some of that may be accounted for by facing weaker defenses overall in the 2nd half of the season, but there was obviously something good happening that allowed SC to nearly double offensive scoring. After a few games a lot of comparisons were being made to the only other true Freshman to see significant time as starting QB for the Gamecocks, Steve Taneyhill. Taneyhill's first season was 25 years prior, which also happened to be USC's inaugural season in the SEC. I thought it would be interesting to look at every Gamecock starting QB's first year of significant contribution since 1992 and see how Bentley stacks up.

In the table below you can see a list of every major starting quarterback for the Gamecocks since 1992 and the stats of their first season of significant action. I've defined significant action as a minimum of 100 passing attempts for the purposes of this analysis. Note that a majority (8 out of 13) of the QBs listed had some degree of playing experience prior to their first year of significant contribution.

Here's some observations:

  • Bentley has the best Completion % of any of the 13 QBs on the list, narrowly edging Connor Shaw by connecting on 65.8% of his passes.
  • He was 2nd in Passing Yards / Game behind Blake Mitchell, trailing by 12.6 yards, but only trails Mitchell by 2.9 yards in terms of Total Yards / Game.
  • Jake is tied for 3rd with Chris Smelley in terms of Totals TDs / Game. Blake Mitchell is 2nd and Connor Shaw is way ahead of everybody.
  • In terms of QBR Bentley is 3rd best at 140.0, behind Shaw and then Thompson. Compared to the other guys those three are in a league of their own, with Blake Mitchell fairly far back at 4th with 132.4 (got dinged for a throwing a lot of picks).
  • Anyone else surprised at how well Perry Orth stacks up in comparison with the others? He's firmly in the middle of the pack (8th out of 13 in QBR). His stats are right there in between Steve Taneyhill and Anthony Wright. He was a bit older than those two when he got his first major action, but he was also a walk-on and didn't have anywhere close to the same physical tools available.

So, just looking at the general stats shows that Bentley is indeed one of the best 1st-year QBs the Gamecocks have had in the past 25 years, all the more impressive considering he was only a true freshman. Moreover, some guys with more access to time and data than me have taken a look at some advanced stats, and those show that Bentley is the best returning SEC quarterback on long throws and under pressure. The hype appears to be real, and the future bright for the Gamecocks' offense.

Recruiting: 2002 - 2017

You can't discuss the slide in South Carolina football success since 2013 without discussing recruiting. The main narratives about why Gamecock football collapsed have centered around Steve Spurrier being too old and too lazy to be an asset in recruiting, along with the coaching staff being uninterested in putting in the required work to recruit at a high level, resulting a precipitous drop-off in talent on the field. I want to take a look at some data to see if we can prove this to be true.

Team Recruiting Rankings

One of the key barometers in measuring how well a team is recruiting in the Internet Age is the yearly team recruiting rankings published by services such as Scout or Rivals. Now, recruiting rankings don't necessarily equal success on the field, but they are a very good indicator, really. There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation that is prevalent in recruiting rankings, however, in that that the perception of a prospect is in many cases affected by the perceived 'eliteness' of the programs that have offered. So a 3-star prospect becomes a high 4-star guy after receiving an offer from Alabama, because Nick Saban has been consistently successful for so long that he can have get anyone he wants, and why would he want anything but the best, right? Year after year Alabama has the #1 recruiting class so they have the #1 team so they have the #1 recruiting class.....ad infinitum. The fact is recruiting rankings aren't perfect, but they're a better evaluation tool than no recruiting rankings. I've taken the yearly team recruiting rankings from Rivals from 2002 (earliest year available) for all SEC East division teams and Clemson, since these are these are the seven teams South Carolina plays every year. Let's take a look:

Rivals team recruiting ranking from the years 2002 to 2017 for all SEC East teams as well as Clemson.

In case that's difficult to read, I've also put this data in a handy table:

The first thing that jumps out at me is that this group of teams has been recruiting a lot better over the past five years compared to the 11 years prior. This is mainly due to SEC East bottom-dwellers Vanderbilt and Kentucky picking up the pace. Here's some other observations:

  • South Carolina has only had two classes in the past 16 years outside the Top 25, with the worst ranking coming in Lou Holtz's final season and the 2nd worst being after the coaching transition in 2016.
  • The Gamecocks have been very consistent in recruiting since 2002, being the 3rd most consistent team over the past 16 years, and the 2nd most consistent team over the past 5 years.
  • South Carolina generally recruits above average amongst this group of teams, consistently out-recruiting Missouri, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt, while falling short of Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee.
  • South Carolina has recruited slightly better than Clemson over the full 16-year period, but Clemson has seen dramatic improvement over the past 5 years.
  • As mentioned in one of the linked articles above and evident in the data here, South Carolina was a highly over-achieving team from 2011-2013, with two Top 10 finishes and one Top 5 finish over that period.
  • Dabo appears to have certainly done more than Butch Jones with his piece of what are remarkably similar hauls over the past 5 years. I guess this highlights the inherent inequality of outcomes with differing brands of doofuses. ALL IN > BRICK BY BRICK???
  • How consistently awesome has Georgia recruited over the past 16 years? Maybe the fans did have a legitimate gripe about Mark Richt.

Based on the data here, South Carolina shouldn't have seen a drop-off in the win column after the 2013 season. The four classes preceding the opening game disaster against Texas A&M in 2014 were ranked 18th, 19th, 16th, and 16th, for an average ranking of just over 17th for that 4-year period. The four classes preceding the 2011 season ranked an average of 19th. It's obvious, therefore, that team recruiting rankings don't tell the entire story here. They don't show the out-weighted impact a single player can have on a team, player development, whether a player left the team, or whether the right players were recruited to execute a particular scheme (or a scheme adequately adjusted to fit personnel). I'll discuss this more later. For now, I want to take a look at talent in the state of South Carolina.

South Carolina Talent

Given the limited national recognition a school like USC has, it has to focus on recruiting it's state well. The result of a recruiting strategy heavily dependent on local talent, however, is that when there is a dip in the level of talent available at the local high schools, the college football team suffers down the road. South Carolina is a small state. On a per capita-basis it certainly holds it's on in terms of producing NFL talent, but there's just simply not that many of these guys around, and, as we'll see, some years have less talent available than others. Let's take a look at the Rivals250 players from the state of South Carolina since 2006:

Rivals250 players from the state of South Carolina between 2006-20015 and the location of the schools that received their letter of intent.

In the past 12 years, there has never been more than 10 Rivals250 players from South Carolina in a given year. USC has certainly been able to get their fair share of these guys, but look at what began happening in 2011. From 2006-2010 there was an average of 8.8 Rivals250 players a year. After that, we're looking at an average of less than 3.2. South Carolina still gets their share of these guys, but there just isn't any of them to get. Let's take it a step further and look at the amount of 'elite' talent available. Here's the Rivals100 players from South Carolina:

Rivals100 players from the state of South Carolina between 2006-20015 and the location of the schools that received their letter of intent.

The trend here is even more stark: after 2011, elite talent just disappeared. South Carolina has dominated acquisition of homegrown elite talent the past 12 years, and has gotten half of the Rivals100 players available in SC from 2012 onwards, but that's only 2 dudes. You'll notice that the Gamecocks' most successful 3 years of football ever immediately followed peak availability in the state of elite talent. Let's now take a closer look at who these elite players were.

Elite Players

Below I've compiled a list of all the Rivals250 players from South Carolina and the schools that got their NLI from 2006 onwards:

Look at some of the names the Gamecocks were able to pull from the state of SC in the years leading up to the 2011 season:

  • Stephon Gilmore, Damario Jeffery, Alshon Jeffery, and DeVonte Holloman in 2009. There's two franchise NFL players in that group and a guy that was starting for the Cowboys before retiring due to a medical condition.
  • Marcus Lattimore, Victor Hampton, Kelcy Quarles, and A.J. Cann in 2010. Every one of these guys was a difference maker for the Gamecocks.
  • And then of course Jadeveon Clowney in 2011, along with Brandon Shell. Shell has started games for the Jets, and Clowney is Clowney. Let's roll the tape:

With that kind of talent on hand just from SC entering the 2011 season, it's hard to understand how we only won 11 games that year (although 2011 is the only year we have ever beaten every team in the SEC East). Apart from Lattimore and Clowney, all the guys I mentioned above were given a 4-star rating. In compiling the team recruiting rankings, 4-star recruits are generally treated equally (Rivals has different grades from 5.8 - 6.0, and most 4-stars are classified as 5.8), but some 4-stars are obviously more equal than others. The Gamecocks rode a wave of of locally available difference makers to three consecutive 11-win seasons and Top10 finishes, but couldn't sustain that success when the pool of South Carolina talent dried up.

Other Factors

I mentioned earlier that were factors related to talent on the field that aren't apparent from looking at team recruiting rankings. These primarily include players leaving early or never making it on campus to begin with, lack of development, and to a lesser extent scheme fit. With regards to players leaving early, nothing comes to mind more immediately than all the players we have recruited from the mid-Atlantic region who left after a short time on campus. G.A Mangus was fond of recruiting the region given his background as a coach in Delaware, and from 2011-2016 we typically brought in at least one player from region. The extensive list of these players is as follows:

  • 2011: Damiere Byrd, Sheldon Royster, Tanner McEvoy
  • 2012: Kaiwan Lewis, Brendan Nosovitch
  • 2013: Na'ty Rogers, David Williams
  • 2015: Jalen Christian
  • 2016: Brandon McIlwain

Out of those nine players, six were rated as 4-star recruits, and only one became a big contributor and finished his career in garnet and black (Byrd). Tanner McEvoy and Brendan Nosovitch were recruited to fit an offensive scheme Spurrier simply had no interest in running. Kaiwan Lews and David Williams were limited contributors that left as graduate transfers in search of more playing time. McIlwain was thrown into the fire too early given his stage of development and was unlucky to enter in the same class as a guy named Jake Bentley. Missing from time to time in recruiting is part of the game, but whiffing nearly 90% of the time on guys from a region outside your normal recruiting footprint hurts more than usual, as recruiting these guys takes up more time and financial resources. If I'm going to use a scholarship on a guy who won't end up contributing much, I'd rather that player be from South Pointe High School than South Philly.

I use the 'Great Mid-Atlantic Experiment' just as an example, but there are many other reasons why recruiting classes can often not live up to expectations. Sometimes guys just don't end up putting it all together for whatever reason, whether that be from injuries (Connor Mitch, Brock Stadnik, Larenz Bryant), or something else (Shaq Roland, Dexter Wideman). Other times guys that could have helped solidify the pass rush in the post-Clowney era can't qualify academically (Jhaustin Thomas - twice, Devante Covington, Kendal Vickers). This stuff happens all the time in recruiting, and, in the case of the Gamecocks the past 5 years, sometimes it happens all at once.

Conclusions

Here's a summary of what we've seen:

  • There was no drop in team recruiting rankings leading up to the collapse in on-field success beginning in 2014.
  • South Carolina high schools produced a glut of talent for several years through 2012 and then ....... didn't. From 2006-2010 there was an average of 8.8 Rivals250 players per year, and only 3.2 afterwards.
  • The local availability of elite talent peaked from 2009-2011, with almost all of these guys ending up producing at All-Conference / -America type levels.
  • A combination of poor recruiting strategy, limited player development, and plain bad luck contributed to recruiting classes failing to live up to expectations from 2012 onwards.

Will Muschamp and company appear to have put together a class with very few misses in 2016 through superior evaluations and work ethic, and the 2017 class has the looks of a sneaky good group that fills a lot of future needs. Talent in South Carolina high schools also appears to be on the upswing. Hopefully the current staff can avoid recent mistakes and fully take advantage of that.

Week 13: Clemson

Here we are at the end of the season again. I must say that I'm feeling better at this point of the year than I was last year after witnessing the loss to the Citadel in person, but I'm still not nearly as enthused as I was 3 years ago preparing to witness the Gamecocks' 5th win in a row over the team up north. Overall I'm thrilled with the direction the program is heading under Muschamp, but it's beyond obvious that this team has a long way to go to competing with Top 25 teams and getting 10+ wins a season.

The Gamecocks will have to play a perfect game to beat Clemson this year. While SC has a lot of young talent performing at a high level, but Clemson has some of the best talent in the country at the offensive skill positions and the best d-line the Gamecocks have faced all year. Despite that, I can't understand the point spread of 25.5. The Gamecocks haven't won or lost a game by more than 2 TDs all year. They have a surprisingly good defense that is in the top 10 in turnovers if I'm not mistaken, and have been great in the red-zone this year. Clemson on the other hand is turning the ball over a lot, with Deshaun Watson having thrown 13 picks (good enough for 2nd in the country). A lot of those turnovers have occurred in the red-zone. I'm expecting the Gamecocks to win the turnover battle, but I think they'll need to do so by 3 or more to keep this game competitive. Clemson hasn't played well at home and has everything to lose, while the Gamecocks haven't played well away and have nothing to lose. Clemson could certainly come out playing tight and struggle against an aggressive Gamecock team, but the talent and depth for Clemson will let them pull away from a close game late.

Prediction: USC 17 - Clemson 31

USC 44 - Western Carolina 31: Thoughts on Win #6

Defense Optional

The offense had it's best game of the season while the defense had it's worst, but at the end of the day the Gamecocks became bowl eligible with their 6th win. The 422 rushing yards were the most the Gamecocks have had in over 25 years, which can't hurt the confidence of the o-line heading into the final game of the regular season. Special teams remain horrible, and the defense gave up 24 points to a bad FCS team. I'm hoping that this is a better result than blowing Western Carolina out would have been, as it will at least prevent overconfidence and give the coaches some coaching material this week.

Teriyaki Chicken Wings

Deebo Samuel - 4 Wings

Scored 3 TDs, 2 rushing and 1 on an awesome 100-yard kick return. Deebo is finally healthy and showing that he is an elite player in the SEC.

Rico Dowdle - 3 Wings

2 TDs and 226-yards rushing on 21 carries. This guy will be awesome next year after a full year in the weight room.

Jake Bentley - 1 Wing

Hayden Hurst - 1 Wing

Became the single-season reception record holder for a tight-end.

A.J. Turner - 1 Wing

Had a good day running the ball and was just 3 yards short of 100.

D.J. Smith - 1 Wing

Recovered a fumble.

Taylor Stallworth - 1 Wing

Had two big time stops on the goal-line stand late in the first half.

Week 12: Western Carolina

This one should be pretty straightforward. The only thing standing between the Gamecocks and bowl eligibility is a 2-8 FCS team. It was exactly one year ago that the Gamecocks lost at home to the Citadel, though, so I'm sure the players, especially the seniors, realize that nothing is a given. Unlike last year's team, this year's unit has everything to play for and a core of young talent trying to prove something. I think the Gamecocks have a big game on offense and will get Perry Orth some snaps in the final quarters. SC should have a lot of success on the ground and punch their ticket to the postseason by halftime.

Prediction: USC 42 - Western Carolina 7

Week 11: Florida

Jake Bentley has been incredible so far in his first three games of action, but every snap he's taken has been within the friendly confines of Williams-Brice stadium. I'm sure he'll make some mistakes in his first road start, but I'd also rather have our QB situation right now than Florida's. Austin Appleby will start for Florida due to injury to Luke Del Rio, which may end up being an addition by subtraction for them. Their (excellent) defense is also missing key contributors this week, particularly at linebacker. South Carolina will need to run the ball successfully to win this game, and the key match-up is the Gamecock O-line vs the Florida D-line. The Florida unit is without a doubt the best unit we've faced this year. I think South Carolina struggles on offense, but makes just enough plays to squeak out a win in the 4th quarter.

Prediction: USC 17 - Florida 13

USC 31 - Missouri 21: Thought on Win #5

The Mayor's Cup back where it belongs

The one had the makings of a trap game. Coming off the big win over Tennessee the Gamecocks could have easily come in unprepared for the worst team in the SEC. Good thing the coaches made them realize that they're not too far ahead of the tigers in the SEC hierarchy. This was also a big win for the Gamecocks, despite Missouri's bottom-dweller status. With the win the Gamecocks will at least have 3 SEC wins in 2016, and are almost assured of becoming bowl eligible. The Gamecocks now haven't trailed in the last 12 quarters of football; recruits and talking heads are taking notice.

Teriyaki Chicken Wings

Jake Bentley - 2 Wings

Has been getting a lot of press and has deserved every bit of it. The  Gamecocks are likely only have 3 wins (maybe even 2....) without Jake Bentley taking snaps. Completed 79% of his pass attempts for 254 yards and 2 TDs. Getting better every week.

Deebo Samuel - 2 Wings

Deebo had one of the best games by a Gamecock receiver I think I've seen since Pharoh Cooper against Tennessee in 2014. This guy caught everything (almost, the one target that he dropped was on a screen play that would have been a sure TD). Had 9 receptions for 125 yards and rushed for a TD on a fly sweep. Almost every one of his receptions was a contested ball. Now that he's healthy Deebo is showing what had the coaches so excited in the off-season, catching at least 8 reception in each of the last 3 games.

Rico Dowdle - 2 Wings

Took control of the game in the 2nd half on his way to 149 yards and a score. Also had a highlight reel catch off the shoulder of a Mizzou linebacker for a TD. 

K.C. Crosby - 1 Wing

Caught 2 TD passes despite only being credited for 1. Has now caught a TD pass in 3 straight games.

Elliott Fry - 1 Wing

Marked his place in Gamecock football history by becoming the all-time leading scorer. Will be getting his name put up in Williams-Brice along with the other greats.

Taylor Stallworth - 1 Wing

Knocked down 2 passes in the 4th quarter to help keep Missouri from scoring late.

Steven Montac - 1 Wing

Has been Mr. Versatility this year, playing all over the secondary. Forced a fumble early in the game to set-up the Gamecocks' first score.

Chris Moody - 1 Wing

I'm really glad this guy came back to play this year. He's added crucial depth to a ridiculously thin secondary, which has been made even thinner recently by frequent ejections. Led the team in tackles with 11 and sealed the game with his pick in the end zone late in the 4th quarter.

Rashad Fenton - 1 Wing

Likely saved a score with his interception in the 3rd quarter. Also had a perfect defense of a screen pass in the 4th.

As always, you can re-watch the game below:

South Carolina, 2016 SEC East Champions???

After the Gamecocks' upset victory over Tennessee 2 weeks ago, it became apparent that there remained a narrow path open for the Gamecocks to win the SEC's Eastern division. For this to happen, 3 key results would be needed on November 5th:

  • South Carolina beats Missouri
  • Georgia wins @ Kentucky
  • Florida loses @ Arkansas

All of this stuff happened. So now only 4 more specific results need to occur over the next few weeks for the Gamecocks to make it to Atlanta. The following scenario produces 4 teams with 4-4 records in the SEC. By my reckoning only 2 teams have ever made it to the SECCG with more than 2 conference losses: LSU in 2001 (5-3) and South Carolina in 2010 (5-3). Given the unprecedented level of putridity in the SEC East, this could the year to break records.

The Contenders

Florida

Could have made a big move towards punching their ticket to Atlanta this past weekend, but instead choose to get blown out by a team near the bottom of the SEC West standings. For South Carolina to win the East, Florida would need to:

  • Lose to South Carolina this weekend, obviously (50%)
  • Lose @ LSU in 2 weeks (80%)

This would put Florida at 4-2 in the East, with losses to Tennessee and SC.

Kentucky

With only one conference game left this season Kentucky would have put themselves in great position to win the East with a 5-3 conference record with a win over Georgia last week. For South Carolina to win the East, Kentucky would need to:

  • Lose @ Tennessee this weekend (70%)

Kentucky would then be 3-3 in the East, with losses to Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee.

Tennessee

These guys are currently 2-3 in the SEC with 3 games remaining. For South Carolina to win the East, Tennessee would need to:

  • Beat Kentucky this weekend (70%)
  • Lose to Missouri in 2 weeks (0.1%) or @ Vanderbilt in 3 weeks (30%)

This would give Tennessee no better than a 4-2 record in the East, with losses to South Carolina and Missouri / Vanderbilt.

South Carolina

With one game remaining in their conference schedule, the Gamecocks need to:

  • Beat the Gators (50%)

The Gamecocks would then have a 4-2 record in the East with losses against Kentucky and Georgia.

Under this scenario Kentucky would be eliminated first as they have 3 losses within the division. Florida would then be eliminated as they would have 2 losses against the remaining 3 teams. South Carolina would then head to Atlanta by virtue of their head-to-head victory over Tennessee. Stranger things have happened. The key game in this scenario is Tennessee's match-up at Vanderbilt. This is one that Tennessee should win, but Vanderbilt is a tough out for everyone. Only one of their losses this year has been by more than 7 points (@ Georgia Tech). They gave Auburn all they wanted last weekend, and have a much better chance than Missouri at pulling off the upset.

Now, there is a question as to whether South Carolina going to Atlanta (to in all likelihood be absolutely dismantled by Alabama) is a desirable thing. The answer is a most definite yes. We haven't made it there enough to be choosy about when we go. At the beginning of each season every team sets goals, and at the top of every team's list is the goal of winning their division. Muschamp achieving one the top goals in his first year would be a major statement, much like Spurrier's team winning the East in 2010 was. Also, every team has a chance to win when they put the pads on, regardless of whether the opponent is Alabama or not. The Gamecocks making it to Atlanta this season is highly unlikely, but they can take care of what's in their control by beating Florida this week.

 

Week 10: Missouri

It's easy to get excited about a big win and then start overestimating a team's abilities. I do that just about every time the Gamecocks get a win and look decent enough doing it. I just hope this doesn't happen to the players this week. Given how bad Missouri has looked this year, it'd be easy to think they could coast to bowl eligibility after the dominance shown last week. I think the coaching staff will have the guys focused and ready to play, though, as Muschamp stated on his calling show that they had the best Thursday practice ever this week. What's at stake this week is readily apparent: win and it's nearly a given that we'll get a bowl game. Those 15 practices are crucial given the youth on the team.

The game plan should be as obvious as what's at stake: run the ball. Missouri is absolutely horrible against the run. On offense they try to snap the ball as quickly as they can, so if we can get stops and run the ball effectively, we will dominate the time of possession and wear the Missouri defense out. I think the Gamecocks will do it. Rico Dowdle and at least one other RB will have a big day, Bentley will make some throws when needed, and the defense will force more than two turnovers. The Gamecocks win this one by a lot.

Prediction: USC 35 - Missouri 17

See Missouri's last SEC win below:

USC 24 - Tennessee 21: Thoughts on Win #4

Long Live the King

I'll say it again: that was a lot of fun. One of the things I like to do during the off-season is re-watch some of the best games from the previous season(s). During those dark football-less days over the years I've probably watched the 2012 Georgia game and 2010 Alabama at least a dozen times each. Make it about two dozen for the 2013 Clemson game. 2014 only provided one game for repeated viewing, the 38-35 win over Georgia. There was absolutely nothing worth watching again from 2015, and as a result I had a hard time getting excited for this season. As I type this I'm watching last week's game for the 3rd time, so I think I'll have at least one go-to game this summer.

It's amazing how one game can completely change the narrative of a season. Before last Saturday South Carolina was years away from being competitive again, if ever, with a coach retread facing an impossible task. Just ask John Adams in Knoxville. Tennessee was a team returning to it's rightful glory, destined to recover from two tough losses against top-10 competition and win the East. After Saturday Will Muschamp and the Cocks were ascendant while Tennessee was in a tail-spin, their best player quitting the team and Butch Jones' seat getting warm. They entered the game ranked, and now they just smell that way. As you'd expect, I have no problem whatsoever with this turn of events.

This game wasn't as close as the score would suggest. At no point did Tennessee have a lead in the game, and needed a no-call for holding on a kick-off return for a TD to keep from losing by double-digits. The offense looked like a completely different unit. In his first SEC start Jake Bentley totally outperformed the star senior QB on the other sideline, and got major contributions from Deebo Samuel (sophomore), Rico Dowdle (true freshman), and Bryan Edwards (true freshman). The future looks bright on offense.

The most encouraging thing about the way the Gamecocks are playing is that they're getting better week by week, especially on defense. The defense has been terrible the past few years, turning the best offensive output in school history to a 7-6 season in 2014, and being the major driver of 3-9 last year. The final ranking among SEC defenses was 13th and 14th in those years, respectively. After 8 games, the Gamecocks currently rank 6th in the SEC in both Total Defense and Scoring Defense, and rank 46th/26th in FBS. They are one of only 6 teams that haven't given up more than 30 points in a game so far. SC is doing this with basically the same players (minus Skai Moore) they had last year. It's obvious that this staff can coach. The Gamecocks lost Antoine Wilder and Chris Lammons in the first quarter, and then D.J. Smith in 4th against Tennessee. They didn't even have enough defensive backs left to man a dime package late in the game and had to use T.J. Holloman as the 6th DB. They were still able to contain Tennessee in the final minutes and keep them from getting the winning score. The turnaround by the defense is one of the most impressive coaching performances I've ever witnessed.

Teriyaki Chicken Wings

Jake Bentley - 3 Wings

Not your ordinary high school senior. Getting a lot of hype after only two games and by beating Tennessee as a freshman is garnering some comparisons to Taneyhill. Will probably have some tough games ahead where his lack of experience hurts, but is currently on the path to becoming a legend.

Jamarcus King - 2 Wings

Had two devastating interceptions that were critical for the win and was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week. This guy is really coming on strong in the back-half of the season and making a strong case for a spot on some All-SEC teams.

Rico Dowdle - 2 Wings

Hit Darrin Kirkland Jr. with the 'two-piece' according to Mark Jones on his way to his first career 100-yard game. Scored the game's first TD and racked up 127 yards on 27 carries. This guy is going to need a nick-name. I've heard 'Uncle' Rico and Rico 'Suave.' I'm a bit partial to the latter, because I guess I have some fond memories of 3rd grade.

Jonathan Walton - 1 Wing

Had a total of 2 TFL with a huge sack for a  drive-killing loss.

Dante Sawyer - 1 Wing

Didn't light up the stat sheet but has been a beast on the line the last few games. Every time I notice this guy he's giving maximum effort and affecting the game.

Deebo Samuel - 1 Wing

83 yards on 8 receptions, most of which were contested. If this guy can stay healthy he has a chance to be a star in this conference.

Bryan Edwards - 1 Wing

Linked up with Bentley for a cool TD on an RPO. Also had a key reception late in the game to help salt the clock away.

K.C. Crosby - 1 Wing

Great 35-yard TD reception, and even better dance moves.

Bonus Wing

Oops, looks like the wing place messed up and delivered a baker's dozen. I'm going to give this one to Will Muschamp for his first big win in garnet and black. According to some national media he was able to become a good coach overnight. This got written this week, and this, and this too. I'm really happy for Coach Muschamp, who has taken a ton of heat this year just for existing in his current role, and is now well on his way to proving the talking heads wrong. Great job, Coach, and thanks for the win.

For your viewing pleasure, the full game can be seen below:

Big Win for the Gamecocks

I'll put some more thoughts up later in the week, but just wanted to put a short post up to say what a great game it was for SC today. I haven't enjoyed a Sunday morning this much since we beat Georgia in 2014. This win went a long way towards removing some (not all) of the sting from the 2013 game. We had a lot of recruits in the house and are competing with Tennessee for a few guys this year, so this win could only help making a strong 2017 class stronger. It was a great day to be a Gamecock.

Week 9: Tennessee

Never has a team deserved to lose to a mediocre South Carolina squad more than this year's Tennessee team. Butch Jones is allegedly a major dirt-bag, they wear orange, and, most importantly, they've won 3 in a row in the series. The 2013 game in particular was a tough one, as the Gamecocks would have won the East if Marquez North hadn't caught that long pass in the waning minutes. This year's team is dealing with a lot of injuries, particularly to Alvin Kamara, who's leading the team in rushing. I think Tennessee still has the edge in talent despite the injuries, though. They're just further along in rebuilding their program than SC is right now, and they've got one of the most experienced and dynamic players in the SEC under center in Josh Dobbs. Dobbs has absolutely killed the Gamecocks in recent years, and defense's record against mobile QBs is not very stellar. I think the Gamecocks stay in this game and keep it close, but they're a few playmakers away from coming up with the win in this one. I sure hope I'm wrong though.

Predition: USC 17 - Tennessee 24

USC 34 - UMass 28: Thoughts on Win #3

We may have just found a quarterback

Jake Bentley appears to be as good as advertised. That's not to say he was perfect, but for being only the 2nd QB ever in college football to start as a freshman after leaving high school a year early I can definitely say he exceeded my expectations. He gave us the deep threat we've been missing all year, and this opened up the run game for our most successful day on the ground all year. The fact that the opponent was UMass has to be kept in mind, so as not to get too excited, but Bentley definitely appeared to be the spark on offense we've been missing. In the first 6 games we never scored more than 2 TDs, but we scored 5 on Saturday.

Oh, and special teams.......not very special.

Teriyaki Chicken Wings

Jake Bentley - 3 Wings

David Williams - 1 Wing

Ran for 2 TDs to go with 69 yards on 15 carries. Had a big run of 33 yards early in the game that helped set-up a score.

K.C. Crosby - 1 Wing

Had an amazing catch on Bentley's first TD pass.

Bryan Edwards - 1 Wing

Recipient of Bentley's 2nd TD pass.

Rico Dowdle - 1 Wing

Led the team in rushing with 87 yards and had a TD.

Deebo Samuel - 1 Wing

Led the team in receiving with 105 yards. Had a big 47 yard play that set-up a score.

Bryson Allen-Williams - 1 Wing

Had 9 tackles, a sack, and 2.5 TFLs. Great defensive performance.

T.J Holloman - 1 Wing

6 tackles, a pass defended and pass broken up to go along with a pick off a tipped ball.

Chris Lammons - 1 Wing

Had an interception late in the game

D.J. Smith - 1 Wing

Led the team in tackles with 12, 10 of which were solo.

Week 8: UMass

The most interesting story heading into this game is whether or not Jake Bentley will get his first action as a Gamecock. All signs are that he will. I'm not sure if a guy who should be in the middle of his final high school season has ever started a game at QB in FBS football, much less in the SEC. My guess is that this is somewhat unprecedented. As a coach's son he's got a high football IQ like Connor Shaw, but with 6'4" height and a cannon for an arm. He's also apparently extremely athletic, as he put up the highest SPARQ scores among QBs on the camp circuit prior to his enrollment. Jake Bentley is without a doubt the best QB recruit the Gamecocks have ever brought in, and when he committed I think everyone agreed that he was the future of the program. That future looks to be beginning sooner than most would like, but I think Bentley will give the FBS's worst offense the spark it needs as the Gamecocks chase 4 more wins over the next 6 games.

Prediction: USC 24 - UMass 6

Week 6: Georgia

Before the season began I said I thought the Gamecocks would win one this year that they shouldn't and lose one they shouldn't. Assuming that the Kentucky loss was the one they shouldn't have taken, the Gamecocks are then due for an upset. All week I had been pretty sure I was going to pick the Gamecocks to beat Georgia. That was back when this game was going to be played in front of a packed Williams-Brice on Saturday night. The Billy Brice has been a nightmare for Georgia in recent years, as Todd Gurley can attest. The last time Georgia won a game in Columbia was 2008. Now that this year's game is being played at 2:30 on Sunday at a likely half-full stadium in a state recovering from a severe hurricane, the home field advantage that the Gamecocks can usually count on will be greatly diminished. This makes what I expect to be a close game harder to pick confidently in favor of Carolina.

I'm going to pick the Gamecocks anyway, though. We'll get Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards back this week, and with Perry Orth likely to start I think the Gamecocks will try to challenge Georgia's relatively average (compared to other SEC teams) secondary early and often. This will open things up for Rico Dowdle to find some success in the run game and hopefully give SC a chance to control the pace of the game more than they have so far this season. The struggling O-line will also play better against Georgia's smaller front seven. Overall I think this will be a much better match-up for the offense than we've seen the last two weeks and I think SC finally gets more than one TD against an SEC opponent.

Defensively the Gamecocks have been playing very well. We're currently 6th in the SEC and 23rd in the country in scoring defense. Considering how much they've been on the field due to poor offense, that is quite an achievement. They've also been showing improvement week-to-week on that side of the ball, and I expect that to continue. Georgia obviously has Nick Chubb in the back-field, but the Georgia OL has been struggling to open holes consistently. Georgia is going to have success running the ball, especially late in the game, but I think the defense makes enough plays to keep them out of the end zone just enough to win a close one.

Prediction: USC 20 - Georgia 17

Week 5: Texas A&M

Texas A&M is 4-0 and the Gamecocks are.......not. Texas A&M has wins against UCLA, Auburn, and a good Arkansas team. They come into this week ranked #9 in the nation and have looked the part. What has held the Aggies back in recent years, a porous defense, has been greatly improved by former LSU coordinator John Chavis. This is a game we were competitive in last year but lost 28-35. This year A&M is a much more complete team and totally outclass the Gamecocks at offensive skill positions and defensive end. Considering the difficulties the SC O-line has had with the conference's more inferior defensive lines, I'm expecting Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall to have a good day. This will obviously give the Gamecocks some difficulty in moving the ball, but the biggest issues will be provided by the Gamecocks themselves. Injuries have absolutely decimated an already inexperienced receiving core. Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards are dealing with hamstring issues and are questionable for the game, while Randrecous Davis is definitely out with his on hamstring problems. Given the lack of a receiving threat the Aggies will stack the box and eliminate the remnants of an already non-existent rushing attack. The Gamecocks will play tough on defense, will will give up points as they'll will be on the field most of the game.

This is a game I marked down as a loss in the preseason and everything I have seen so far has reinforced that opinion. We simply don't have the talent to compete with a good SEC West team this year.

Prediction: USC 13 - Texas A&M 28

Check out last year's match-up below:

USC 20 - East Carolina 15: Thoughts on Win #2

An Ugly Win is Still a Win, v2.0

I wasn't able to get my thoughts on the East Carolina game up last week as I was traveling until late Saturday night. I'm not going to say much about this one other than it's great to get the win. This is especially evident after the egg laid last week at Kentucky. Wins are going to be hard to come by this year, and this one will be one of the few.

Teriyaki Chicken Wings

Chris Lammons - 4 Wings

After a terrible outing against Mississippi State and getting called out by Muschamp, Lammons responded with one of the best statistical performances for a cornerback I can remember. 8 total tackles (6 solo), 2 TFLs, a sack with a forced fumble, and an end-zone interception. We don't win the game without Lammons' performance.

Brandon McIlwain - 2 Wings

McIlwain gave the Gamecocks their first multi-touchdown game to date with his 2 rushing TDs in the 1st Quarter.

Jamarcus King - 2 Wings

Had 6 tackles and an amazing end-zone interception.

Antoine Wilder - 1 Wing

In his first ever significant action at safety forced a fumble near the goal line preventing the Pirates from getting the winning score.

David Williams - 1 Wing

Had arguably his best day ever in garnet and black by leading the team in rushing and getting 9.6 yards / carry. Also had a reception for 16 yards.

Bryan Edwards - 1 Wing

Led the team both catches and receiving. Had a huge play on the 2nd series 

D.J. Wonnum - 1 Wing

The true freshman had 2 TFLs and a sack.

Check out the full game below:

Week 4: Kentucky

It's Kentucky week again, which during the year 2000-2013 used to be the same as 'Guaranteed SEC Win Week.' Recently times have changed a bit, as Kentucky brings a 2-game win streak into the match-up. Historically Kentucky's biennial trip to Williams-Brice coincided with the South Carolina State Fair, which either meant post-game funnel cakes or the loss of your reserved parking space in the fairgrounds, depending on your perspective.

Another thing about Kentucky week is that it lets me post this video again of (currently injured) Kentucky QB Drew Barker getting dropped like a sack of red-headed potatoes by former teammate Patrick Graffree. Take a look:

Never forget.

OK, time for football talk. Kentucky is not a good team. In the first game of the season they gave up a 21-point lead to lose by 9 to Southern Miss at home. They then got absolutely steamrolled by Florida. They finally got their first win of the season while giving up 42 points to New Mexico State and spending the 1st Half of that game either trailing or tied. Looking at the statistics after three games it becomes readily apparent that Kentucky is a very weird team. On offense they're currently 5th in the SEC in points per game, but 1st in interceptions thrown. Conversely on defense they're at the bottom of the conference in points allowed, but 1st in interceptions. Like I said, weird.

Given the production seen so far this year I think it's safe to say that Kentucky has the edge on offense. Junior college transfer Stephen Johnson will get his first start at QB due to Barker's injured back, and he performed extremely well last week. He's capable of making plays with his legs, and combined with Boom Williams, JoJo Kemp, and true freshman Benny Snell creates a very formidable rushing attack. If the Gamecocks have the same issues tackling on the perimeter that they had in Starkville, it'll be a long night (actually, it'll be a short night, because UK will keep the ball on the ground the entire game and run out the clock.....).

As for the Kentucky defense, let's just say this will be easiest time the Gamecock o-line will have the rest of the SEC schedule. The Kentucky front seven is not playing well, has no depth, and appears to have a problem with motivation. This is the perfect opportunity for SC to get the ground game going. David Williams had arguably his best game in the garnet and black last week against ECU, and I think this is the best chance he'll ever have to build on that performance. I expect the Gamecocks to come out trying to run the ball on 1st and 2nd downs exclusively until it's proven that they can't get >5-yards per carry.

This is a difficult game to predict. Comparing relative strengths and weaknesses I have to give Kentucky the edge because I think their advantage on offense is bigger than any advantage USC may have in other areas. But I can't escape the feeling that SC is a team on the rise while Kentucky is trending downwards and on the verge of giving up this season. Given the youth on offense I expect the Gamecocks to continue to show improvement and take advantage of a weak UK defense. Kentucky has never beaten the Gamecocks three years in a row, and that won't change this week.

Prediction: USC 27 - Kentucky 24

Check out the 2015 contest below:

Week 3: East Carolina

After last week's performance, it's tough to pick the Gamecocks to win. I'm going to do it anyway though, because unlike last week I think South Carolina has the more talented team, especially on both lines of scrimmage. Now, I realize the offensive line didn't perform well last week and now have two significant contributors out with injury, but ECU is not an SEC team and where that shows the most is on the defensive line. The Gamecocks should have the edge here, which hopefully means some TDs in the first half. As for the Pirate's offense, they are have been putting up big numbers so far this year. They have really good players at the skill positions and are successful getting the ball to those guys in space, which doesn't bode well for our depleted secondary. ECU has the edge here.

The Pirates have been one of the better non-Power Five teams the last few years, and have been successful by running up points with their version of the Air Raid offense. An interesting note is that ECU has won all of their last 6 contests against ACC opponents. Yes, that's mostly against the North Carolina schools, but still impressive from a mid-major program.  I think this will be a close game, but the Gamecocks will show up to play in the home opener and win the game in the 2nd half.

Prediction: USC 27 - ECU 20

Below is the last time we met ECU in 2014, in the 2nd game of the season after face planting against Texas A&M the previous week:

USC 14 - Mississippi State 27: Thoughts on Loss #1

There's not really a whole lot to say about this one, other than I'm not too good at this whole prognosticating thing. This is a game that I picked us to lose before the season started, and once I let that set in my disappointment abated somewhat. I always have trouble picking against the Gamecocks come game week, especially when the opponent loses to South Alabama the previous week. Even if I can't really say I'm surprised at the loss, I was definitely disheartened to see how badly we got beat in the trenches on offense and how poorly we tackled on the perimeter. The O-line was supposed to be best unit on the team this year considering experience, depth, and talent, but that was certainly not the case last Sunday morning. On defense I can understand some poor tackling given what we witnessed the past two years, but I didn't expect us to let a Mississippi State quarterback not named Dak Prescott set a school single-game QB rushing record. I think the worst thing about the game was the injury to Chaz Elder, who had been one of our better secondary players through 1.5 games. On a positive note we played much better in the 2nd half and outscored the cowbell-ringers 14-3, but the effort was obviously too little, too late. One thing this loss showed was how far we have to go to get back to winning 10+ games a year. Given our youth and current recruiting I'm optimistic about the next few years, 2018 in particular, but we'll need to keep improving this year to keep our current commitments on board. Let's hope this improvement begins in our home opener against a tough East Carolina team.

Watch the game again below: