There are two things that I’m sick of hearing this off-season: how difficult the schedule is and how impossible it is for us to do well against it.
If you’re a Carolina fan and you haven’t heard either of those two things, let me know so that I can join you under whatever rock you just crawled out from under.
These talking points are as widespread as any I have ever seen—and I’ve seen some overplayed talking points (anyone else remember 2013 being all about Clowney’s lack of conditioning?).
It’s always phrased the same way, too: the person makes it clear to stress how unbelievably tough our slate of games is and always right behind it— like a sidekick to a superhero— they add the disclaimer: “the Gamecocks aren’t good enough to handle it”.
We expect this from the Clemson fans, and of course, we can’t hold it against them because they are simply doing their job as rivals.
We also can’t expect anything less from the national sports media, because when have they ever given us the benefit of the doubt? Sadly though, this article is not for either of those entities: it’s directed at us.
I’ve seen more and more gamecocks resign the season to being nothing more than mediocre. Those same fans suggest that we may scratch 7-wins if we are lucky.
When drilled as to why, they lean on the simple notion that they are “just being realistic” because “we just aren’t good enough to handle that schedule.”
But why? Why aren’t we good enough?
Maybe I’m in the minority here, but I actually think that our team is extremely underrated.
We are not just a so-so team, but a good one with a fairly high ceiling.
Even ESPN’s recent Power Index sees the potential, as they have the Gamecocks listed as the 18th best team in the country.
Despite this, there’s still a clear narrative that suggests that we will fail and that if we were to somehow stumble upon any more than seven wins this season, it would be only due to some miraculous move of God.
I’m sorry, but I just don’t buy that.
It’s certainly feasible for our total to be around the 6-win range. However, when really taking the time to assess this team, not only do I see the potential to turn some heads with the way that we play, but I also see that all signs point to a few more wins than the talking heads believe.
Our coach believes in this team and our players sure do, but do our fans?
In the name of appealing to what the national media approves of as being realistic, maybe not. At the very least, a lot of fans are anxious about sticking their necks out there with any real optimism.
Well luckily, I’m here to do it for you.
So, here goes nothing: my reasons why I think we are actually a really good team this year.
Experienced presence at QB
One Last Ride. Forever to thee 🐔 pic.twitter.com/Qz44dpAEhp— Jake Bentley (@Jake_Bentley_) January 4, 2019
Jake Bentley has been around the program for ages it seems.
Due to him enrolling early and starting as a freshman, it’s easy to forget that the senior is only 21-years-old.
The once highly touted 4-star recruit had many believing that a senior season may never come due to an early NFL exit. The talent has always been there, as has the competitive fire to win at all costs, but the clear issue with Bentley has been a battle with inconsistency.
With errant decision making and a junior-season case of the turnover bug, the Jake Bentley legend has not quite panned out. Yet.
Luckily for Bentley and Carolina fans everywhere, 2018 showed some genuine signs of him turning the proverbial corner.
His performance against Clemson was dominant. If he had a healthy defense at the time, the outcome could have turned in Carolina’s favor.
Still, Bentley’s flashes of athleticism, smart decision making, and veteran leadership helped the Gamecocks rack up 600 yards in total offense against the eventual national champions. No matter what Tiger fans say, that’s no small feat.
Even though Bentley seemed to fall flat in the bowl game, another offseason will only make him better.
Expect his experience to pay dividends in the plethora of big games to come in 2019.
If he can limit the turnovers and increase his consistency, there is no reason why Bentley can’t be one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC.
Second year under OC Bryan McClendon
Bryan McClendon — #Gamecocks' staff MVP last season — is not a Top 25 play-caller nationally, per this list.— Brad Crawford (@BCrawford247) July 10, 2019
McClendon in Year 1 (raw data, 2017 vs. 2018)
PPG: 24.4 vs. 30.1
YPG: 337.1 vs. 425.6
3rd down: 38% vs. 42%
Passing: 214.9 vs. 272.8
600+ yards at Clemson https://t.co/LW1rmk6SrA
2018 had its disappointments, sure.
However, I think you would be hard pressed to find any Gamecock fans who think replacing Kurt Roper with Bryan McClendon was a bad move.
Overall, the statistics sing McClendon’s praises—to the tune of 30.1 points per game—and possibly more importantly than that, his work has passed the fan eye test.
With the offense showing clear signs of improvement, McClendon’s second year of implementing his system could prove to be huge.
Expect to see an aggressive offense that uses the pace and attacks with every play. Also, rumor has it that McClendon held some things back last year that he plans to implement this season.
If this is the case, a veteran QB like Bentley could feast off of a fully opened playbook.
Improved talent and highly motivated running game
Let’s be honest: no individual group has faced the amount of criticism that the running backs have.
While it may be natural for die-hard fans to defend players, for the most part, the criticism of “underperforming” at the position is hard to argue against.
Because of this, the 2019 version of the running game will have something to prove.
I firmly believe that the criticism from the offseason will give birth to a raw motivation to earn back respect with each and every carry.
If the Gamecocks can get back a healthy Rico Dowdle it will help. However, with the addition of the hyper-talented graduate transfer Tavien Feaster, the rushing attack could catapult to the next level.
Whether be Feaster, Dowdle, or Denson, I expect all of the backs to run angry and with an edge that hasn’t been seen since the days of Mike Davis.
An improved running game will not only help the silence prove doubters, but more importantly than that, it can effectively open the down field passing game for Bentley.
Since quarterback success is often tied to rushing success, a major leap in the ground-game productivity just might be the thing that the offense needs to reach (and sustain) new heights.
Athleticism up front
The running game will be improved, but not just because of an influx of talent and competitive edge.
One main contributing factor will also be the offensive line.
The position that will battle in the trenches during 2019 is, as Coach Muschamp has said, “more athletic and more powerful than [they have] been.”
This statement implies that the skill level at the position has increased and with it, the possibility of greater run support and pass protection.
Even with the loss of Dennis Daley to the NFL, the likes of Donell Stanley, Sadarius Hutcherson and Dylan Wonnum suggests that there’s certainly some star potential up front.
If Coach Boom can fill the other two spots with the right personnel, as well as use his depth wisely, the offense as a whole can truly be a threat this season.
Real competitive depth at receiver
At wideout, the roster is packed with pure athletes who can collectively restore the spark that was lost when Deebo Samuel was drafted to the 49ers.
Expect Bryan Edwards to excel in his role as the go to guy.
However, don’t be surprised if Shi Smith ascends to new levels as the featured deep threat. His speed and quickness will torch defenses while adding a complimentary element to what the sure handed Edwards does best.
Outside of those guys, expect OrTre Smith, Josh Vann and perhaps even a youngster like freak athlete Xavier Legette to shine bright.
If Bentley remains consistent and limits avoidable mistakes, not only will Edwards break all sorts of receiving records, but this group could be touted as one of the best positions on the team.
Izzy and Jaycee
While it may look like the receivers have an edge as the best position group, DC Travaris Robinson has two young playmakers that will challenge for that title this season.
The truth is, Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukaumu are no joke.
Their attitude has an intense competitive edge to it that is reminiscent of Gamecock star— and fan favorite— DJ Swearinger.
They each play every snap (even in practice scrimmages) with what Jake Bentley has called a “fierceness”. That type of spark has the potential to set the entire defense on fire, but with Horn and Mukaumu, it’s much more than just mental toughness.
In reality, the two corners are so talented that by the season’s end, they very well could be considered the best in the SEC.
With Horn’s natural skill and hunger to get to the ball, paired with Mukaumu’s ridiculous athleticism and size advantage, this very well could be the year of the cornerback in Columbia.
Depth along the defensive front
Just the way that the offensive line helps passing and rushing productivity, the thing that will most help the secondary—besides the freakish corners— is the salty and talented defensive line.
Anchored by star Javon Kinlaw, the 2019 version of the line has experience, size, and a wealth of young talent, including five star signee Zacch Pickens.
If Kinlaw, Wonnum, Sandidge, Sterling, and the rest of the gang stay healthy, the front five will get more pressure than we’ve seen in recent years.
They may not quite be at the level of the lines that featured Clowney, but the talent gap is closing quickly.
Simply put, these guys won’t get pushed around up front, and my only advice for opposing quarterbacks who see big number 3 charging for them: get rid of the ball quick, because Kinlaw COMIN’.
A+ in the “specialist” department
Chris (@CPhilly19) talks special teams, including the lack of respect #Gamecocks punter @JosephTCharlton is getting heading into this season.— The Spurs Up Show (@TheSpursUpShow) July 30, 2019
Full episode ➡️ https://t.co/QlIorFCfKQ pic.twitter.com/yIZ0iD2UOJ
With a more cohesive team than any other in Muschamp’s tenure, the cherry on the top of the cake just might also be their security blanket should things go wrong.
If all my reasons for success this season fails and for some unforeseen reason the offense sputters, the two specialists for the Gamecocks may have the ability to save a close game and perhaps even the season.
Parker White has gone from inconsistent freshman to college football’s very own Steph Curry. It doesn’t matter where he’s at on the field, he can and will get the 3 points.
Accompanying him is the ever-sure-footed Joseph Charlton at punter.
Charlton’s ability to flip a field with precision can change momentum in a hurry.
Of course, we all hope that their services won’t be needed, but having that type of insurance can give us an edge in nearly every game we play.
Maybe the Gamecocks limp their way to a bowl game. Maybe it ends up much worse.
However, after looking at the positives mentioned above, I just cannot force myself to say that we have a team that cannot win.
Our offense will compete with anyone, our defense will help keep us in games and our special teams just may convert the game-winners that make the difference.
Because of this, I think that limiting this team’s potential just to stay realistic, is perhaps the most unrealistic thing possible.