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South Carolina football is on the rise under Will Muschamp! Maybe!

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It’s easy to talk yourself into the Gamecocks. It’s also easy to talk yourself out of the Gamecocks.

South Carolina v Clemson
Jake Bentley
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

I’m not going to lie: I’ve been arguing with myself about South Carolina all offseason. I have no idea what to think about the Gamecocks in 2017, and it’s beginning to drive me crazy.

This really wasn’t a very good team in 2016.

Muschamp generated a little buzz by doubling South Carolina’s win total from three to six in his first year succeeding Steve Spurrier. The Gamecocks beat division rivals Vanderbilt, Tennessee, and Missouri, established a defensive identity, and nearly beat a strong USF in the Birmingham Bowl. Granted, the fact that this was progress says a lot about how far they fell in Spurrier’s final season.

This was undeniable progress. Except, it was only progress on paper. Their S&P+ rating was minus-3.1 adjusted points per game in 2015 (as in, they were 3.1 points per game worse than the average team) and minus-3.6 in 2016.

The defense improved by about five points, but the offense regressed by an equal amount. The schedule allotted wins against three bad teams (ECU, UMass, Western Carolina), and SC beat them by an average score of just 33-25. They played like the worst team in the conference, closer to a five-win team than six, but benefited from nearly three points per game of turnovers luck.

But they were better when Jake Bentley took over.

South Carolina averaged just 14 points per game through six contests, so Muschamp and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper tore the redshirt off the true freshman. From that point, the Cocks averaged 27 points per game and rebounded from 2-4 to qualify for a bowl. So if you’re an optimist, you’re setting the offensive bar there and not at the full-season averages.

But they were only a little bit better and quite lucky.

That scoring average includes 78 points against UMass and Western Carolina and 55 against collapsing Tennessee and Missouri defenses. And while the Cocks did win four games with Bentley, only one was against a team better than 69th in S&P+ and only WCU fell by more than 10 points.

Meanwhile, the Cocks beat Tennessee and UMass by a combined nine points ... with 9.3 points’ worth of turnovers luck. They were outgained by Missouri but won because of two red zone interceptions. They ended up fighting USF to a virtual draw, but that required a mad comeback after falling behind by 18 points. They got destroyed by Clemson and were lucky to stay within 13 points of Florida.

The second-half surge was a bit of a facade, in other words.

But they were young as hell. And Muschamp is recruiting well.

There’s something to be said for maintaining your level in a youth movement. My goodness, was this a green team, especially on offense. Bentley was a true freshman. Running backs Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner were freshmen. The top nine receiving targets were freshmen or sophomores. Twenty-four of 65 offensive line starts went to sophomores.

Of course the Cocks’ offensive numbers were bad. They’re only going to get better.

Plus, Muschamp went out and signed the No. 21 recruiting class in the country, per the 247Sports Composite. Of the other teams trying to dig out of the bottom half of the SEC East, Kentucky (30th), Missouri (42nd), and Vanderbilt (64th) can’t match that. Per 247, Muschamp signed six four-star prospects, more than those three teams combined.

But that schedule is brutal. And almost everybody in the East returns as much as the Gamecocks do.

The East was crazy-young in 2016, and division teams ranked seventh, eighth, ninth, 10th, 31st, and 50th in my initial returning production figures. Only Tennessee returns less than 67 percent of production. That will temper the Gamecocks’ developmental gains. So will a schedule that, per S&P+, features seven opponents projected 32nd or better, six relative tossups, and four likely losses.

So South Carolina is improving but isn’t and is gaining ground on the division but isn’t. Glad I could help clarify that for everyone.

Western Carolina v South Carolina
Will Muschamp
Photo by Todd Bennett/GettyImages

2016 in review

2016 South Carolina statistical profile.

Even adjusting for opponent, South Carolina’s offense took a step forward when Bentley stepped behind center.

  • First 6 games (2-4): Avg. percentile performance: 37% (16% offense, 60% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.3, SC 4.8 (minus-0.5) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-1.4 PPG
  • Last 7 games (4-3): Avg. percentile performance: 47% (45% offense, 46% defense) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.9, SC 5.4 (minus-0.5) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-3.6 PPG

The offense went from awful to average, but defensive slippage offset most of those gains. Each of the last four regular season opponents — Clemson, Missouri, and even Florida and Western Carolina — averaged at least 6 yards per play on the Gamecocks.

There weren’t any obvious, injury-related reasons, but run defense was the culprit. Missouri’s Damarea Crockett and Ish Witter combined to rush for 162 yards on 24 carries (6.8 per carry), Florida’s Jordan Scarlett went for 134 in 20 (6.7), WCU’s Detrez Newsome and Tyrie Adams went for 214 in 33 (6.5), and a foursome of Clemson backs went for 217 in 37 (5.8).

That senior tackles Taylor Stallworth and Ulric Jones and senior linebackers Skai Moore (who missed 2016 with injury) and Bryson Allen-Williams return is a good thing for the run defense, but depth in the front seven has been whittled by attrition, and it evidently wasn’t very strong last year either.


Offense

South Carolina offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

You could basically see one layer of the offense Roper intends to install: even if the passes weren’t going anywhere, South Carolina had a nice completion rate. This wasn’t the case for the first month (53 percent), but even before the switch to Bentley, it had begun to rise (last nine games: 66 percent).

This didn’t result in actual efficiency, mind you.

The SEC was dictated by big plays in 2016. Ten of 14 offenses had success rates that were at least a little above average, but big play ability varied wildly. Four teams were both inefficient and non-explosive. South Carolina was one of them.

South Carolina offensive efficiency & explosiveness

Still, easy pitches and catches can be step one toward a complex, efficient attack. Step two: a run game that can take advantage of defenses that are getting stretched from sideline to sideline.

The Gamecocks began to do that when Rico Dowdle took over as primary ball carrier. He didn’t play until October, but while A.J. Turner and David Williams combined to gain five yards on just 33 percent of their carries, Dowdle did so on 42 percent (slightly above the national average). His season averages were plumped up by a huge game against WCU (21 carries, 226 yards), but the offense still took a step when he was in.

Tennessee v South Carolina
Rico Dowdle
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Step three in the build: once offenses are stressed and stretched, and you’re capable of gaining five yards on any given play, it’s time for the big plays to begin. Either a receiver breaks a tackle on a short pass (or a running back on a hand-off) and goes a long way, or the play-calling takes advantage of defenders who are trying to anticipate and jump routes and inserts some well-timed play-fakes and pump-fakes.

I’m not sure about Dowdle’s big-play ability (it should be at least average or above average), but in receivers Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards, the Gamecocks might have a pair of big-play guys.

Samuel missed three early games with nagging injuries, but over the final eight games he averaged 6.9 catches per game and 13 yards per catch. Over a full, 13-game season, that’s a 90-catch, 1,200-yard pace. Meanwhile, Edwards averaged 13.8 yards per catch when Bentley took over. And in the comeback-mode bowl game, they combined for 20 catches and 261 yards.

If any of these players get hurt — Bentley, Dowdle, Samuel, Edwards — then the drop-off could be considerable. Bentley’s backups are untested junior Michael Scarnecchia, walk-on Danny Gordon, and true freshman Jay Urich, Turner has a lot to prove at running back, and the only two other returning wideouts in the rotation (Terry Googer and Chavis Dawkins) combined for 15 catches and 4.7 yards per target. There are some exciting freshmen at receiver (OrTre Smith and Shi Smith were both four-star signees, and Chad Terrell was close), but you hate to rely on that.

With these four in the lineup, though, Roper might have what he needs. And he at least has depth at tight end, where juniors Hayden Hurts and K.C. Crosby (combined: 59 targets, 44 catches, 360 yards, 5 TDs) return.

Western Carolina v South Carolina
Deebo Samuel
Photo by Todd Bennett/GettyImages

He’ll have more experience to work with up front, too. Eight Gamecock linemen started at least one game, and seven of them, all juniors and seniors, are back. This isn’t an enormous line — though with an average size of 6’5, 306 pounds among those seven returnees, it’s not exactly small either (and 330-pound JUCO transfer Dennis Daley could figure in the rotation, too) — but it’s got plenty to prove.

South Carolina ranked 111th in Adj. Line Yards and 116th in Adj. Sack Rate last year, and while you can pin some of that on the incredibly young backfield ... you can’t pin it all on that.

Defense

South Carolina defensive radar

The Gamecocks’ run defense went from good to horrible as the season progressed, finishing at 68th in Rushing S&P+; the pass defense, meanwhile, remained a strength in a very bend-don’t-break way. SC ranked just 84th in passing success rate but sixth in passing IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of successful plays) — while the Cocks allowed 111 passes of 10-plus yards (66th in FBS), they allowed only 10 of 30-plus (second).

With five of last year’s top six defensive backs returning, I doubt that changes much. Muschamp and defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson do have to replace four contributors at safety (namely, starter Chris Moody), so depth could be an issue behind senior D.J. Smith, but they’ve still got Smith and junior Steven Montac. And in seniors Jamarcus King and Chris Lammons and junior Rashad Fenton (combined: 8.5 tackles for loss, seven interceptions, 20 breakups), they’ve got one of the steadier cornerback trios in the SEC.

Georgia v South Carolina
Chris Lammons
Photo by Todd Bennett/GettyImages

So what the hell happened to the run defense? For the most part, opponents figured out they couldn’t pass but were plenty satisfied to stick to the ground attack; SC faced rushes on 62 percent of standard downs (45th-most) and 38 percent of passing downs (28th), and it was increasingly effective.

I don’t have an immediate explanation for this. The line rotated eight players, and none missed a game with injury. And while Skai Moore was indeed out, the three starting linebackers also combined to miss just a single game.

Whatever the cause, Muschamp obviously knows how vital improvement in run defense will be. He made the point of mentioning the importance of his three leading seniors up front — tackles Taylor Stallworth and Ulric Jones and end Dante Sawyer — at SEC Media Days.

It will be interesting to see how new and old mix together here. Stallworth, Jones, Sawyer, Moore, and Bryson Allen-Williams have been around a while; Allen-Williams and Sawyer are former star recruits, and Moore was probably the team’s best defender in 2015. But the Cocks will also be leaning on some key sophomores — ends D.J. Wonnum and Keir Thomas, tackle Kobe Smith, linebacker T.J. Brunson — and, potentially, some newcomers.

JUCO tackle Javon Kinlaw is a monstrous 6’6, 326 pounds, JUCO linebacker Eldridge Thompson could figure into the rotation quickly, and freshman linemen Brad Johnson and M.J. Webb were two of the four-stars from February’s signing haul. Yes, the seniors are important, but the growth of the youngsters will dictate whether we’re talking about a defense with a top-40 ceiling or a top-25 ceiling.

Clemson v South Carolina
Skai Moore
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Special Teams

Special teams were a net gain for the Gamecocks. Longtime place-kicker Elliott Fry was perfect inside of 40 yards and pretty good outside of 40 (5-for-9), and the combination of Chris Lammons on punt returns and Deebo Samuel and A.J. Turner on kick returns gave the Cocks an above-average return game. Perhaps most importantly considering the state of the offense, punter Sean Kelly was solid, too.

Fry and Kelly are gone, though. The return game should be fine, but the legs are almost brand new. Punter Michael Almond showed promise in two punts, but ... two isn’t a large number.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
2-Sep vs. N.C. State 27 -2.7 44%
9-Sep at Missouri 53 0.4 51%
16-Sep Kentucky 41 3.4 58%
23-Sep Louisiana Tech 82 14.7 80%
30-Sep at Texas A&M 19 -9.1 30%
7-Oct Arkansas 32 0.7 52%
14-Oct at Tennessee 24 -7.0 34%
28-Oct Vanderbilt 63 6.8 65%
4-Nov at Georgia 20 -9.1 30%
11-Nov Florida 15 -8.5 31%
18-Nov Wofford NR 23.9 92%
25-Nov Clemson 6 -13.0 23%
Projected S&P+ Rk 36
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 63 / 28
Projected wins 5.9
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 6.7 (42)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 21 / 20
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 7 / 0.3
2016 TO Luck/Game +2.6
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 81% (91%, 72%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 5.3 (0.7)

Man, I just don’t know. The offensive starting 11 could be strong, but any injury could expose a soft underbelly. The defense has plenty of seniors and gets Moore back, but the cratering of the defensive line over the second half of the season rang alarm bells.

South Carolina’s six wins last year may have been a bit misleading, but we did catch a glimpse of what Muschamp wants to build, and we saw at least a few hints that he might be able to build it. Even with the regression against the run, the Gamecocks still improved from 95th to 50th in Def. S&P+, and the offense did take the first step toward a safe, semi-dangerous efficiency offense.

If we assume normal improvement from the many young players, then they will improve offensively for the next couple of years. If the defense takes at least a little bit of a step forward again, then they’re in business.

With this schedule, though, S&P+ projects the Gamecocks a healthy 36th but projects only 5.9 wins.

I tend to view games with win probability between 35 and 65 percent (about one possession) as relative tossups and games outside of that range as likely wins or losses. Using that definition, the Cocks are looking at two likely wins, four likely losses, and six tossups. Three conference games (at Missouri, Kentucky, Arkansas) are projected within 3.4 or fewer points. The range of outcomes is pretty large, but SC might have to win at least four of those six tossups just to get back to the postseason.

If the turnover luck flips after last year’s happy run, South Carolina could improve pretty considerably on paper but finish about 4-8. Such is life when you play in an improving division, when you draw two top-32 teams in inter-division play, and when you play two good to great ACC teams (NC State, Clemson) in non-conference.

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