Today at No. 42: South Carolina
Coach: Will Muschamp (6-7, entering second season; 34-28 overall)
2016 record: 6-7 overall, 3-5 Southeastern Conference; tied for fifth in East Division
Look back: Coach Will Muschamp made the most of his second chance as a head coach in the SEC. Two years removed from his firing at UF, Muschamp led South Carolina to a better season than anyone predicted.
The Gamecocks stunned Tennessee 24-21 and played several SEC foes to close losses. Despite a regular season-ending blowout loss to eventual national champion Clemson, South Carolina earned a trip to the Birmingham Bowl. There, the Gamecocks fell to South Florida 46-39 during an overtime thriller.
In the end, Muschamp showed he was better equipped for a head coaching role in the SEC than he displayed during four seasons in Gainesville. He was not South Carolina’s first choice, but proved he might be the right choice to lead the Gamecocks.
Offensive starters returning: 10
Offensive starters lost: 1
Defensive starters returning: 6
Defensive starters lost: 5
Key losses: DE Darius English, OL Mason Zandi, PK Elliott Fry, LB T.J. Holloman, DE Marquavius Lewis
Top returnees: QB Jake Bentley, LB Skai Moore, RB Rico Dowdle, OL Zack Bailey, WR Deebo Samuel
Strengths: The rise of first-year freshman quarterback Jake Bentley solidified a position Muschamp failed to figure out during his time with the Gators. Bentley had his highs and lows during seven starts, but ended with a 390-yard, three-touchdown day against USF in the bowl game. The Gamecocks finished last in the SEC in scoring (20.8 points per game), but should make a big strides during Bentley’s sophomore season.
One of 10 returning starters on offense, Bentley will have a strong supporting cast, including one of the conferences best collection of receivers. Junior Deebo Samuel (59 catches, 783 yards) can line up in the slot, outside and even the Wildcat formation; he scored six times out of the package in 2016. Junior Hayden Hurst (48 catches, 616 yards) is one of the SEC’s more intriguing weapons. He is a former walk-on who spent two years in the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. Receiver Bryan Edwards had 44 catches, four for scores, as a first-year freshman.
Tailback Rico Dowdle followed a breakout game against Tennessee (127 yards) with a 149-yard day against Missouri. Otherwise, the first-year freshman was inconsistent, but will line up behind an offensive line with four returning starters. Zach Bailey, a 6-foot-6, 311-pound junior, will lead the way after moving to right tackle.
The defensive-minded Muschamp made an immediate impact as the Gamecocks limited opposing SEC offenses to 21 points — down from 30.4 in 2015. This was without star linebacker Skai Moore, who returns from a neck injury. Cornerback Rashad Fenton has star potential, while early enrollee Jaylin Dickerson could make an immediate impact in a unit that is experienced yet unsettled.
Weaknesses: Muschamp’s defense lost top pass rusher Darius English (team-high nine sacks in 2016) and will need to find some players to pressure opposing QBs. D.J. Wonnum will replace English, but fellow sophomore Shameik Blackshear could be the wild card. A former four-star recruit has been slowed by a knee injury and a gunshot wound. Moore’s return is a huge boost for a linebacking unit that lacks depth and playmakers.
While the offense is stocked with playmakers, Bailey needs the rest of the offensive line to rise to his level of performance. Walk-on kicker Alex Woznick will be asked to replace school scoring leader Elliott Fry.
Outlook: Muschamp returned the Gamecocks to respectability after the program tailed off during Steve Spurrier’s final two seasons. The next step is always tougher.