Friends, we have made it.
The long, unforgiving offseason has finally come to an end and now the reward for our perseverance is here: game day.
As a whole, the 2019 version of Will Muschamp’s team looks a bit different from the one that we saw play against Coastal Carolina in last year’s opener.
Losing key play makers such Deebo Samuel and Bryson Allen-Williams automatically changes things up.
But, with some solid depth at the skill positions, a new influx of young talent, and a senior signal caller, there’s a lot to like about this version of the Gamecocks.
Coach Muschamp went as far as to call it his best team.
That’s bold praise for a coach that will face the nation’s toughest schedule, but maybe, just maybe, he means it.
So, with “talking season” finally coming to an end, it’s time to see the real product on the field.
To help prepare all the Gamecock faithful for the opener, here’s five things fans should keep an eye on in tomorrow’s season opener:
Has Bentley taken that “next step”?
In his 3 years as the starting quarterback, Jake Bentley has resembled a Katy Perry song with the way that he’s been “hot” then “cold”.
When he was hot, he was absolutely on fire (remember him lighting up that so-called invincible Clemson defense last year?) but when he was cold, he was frigid (I’m still trying to block out that Virginia game).
Bentley’s inconsistency is a great source of frustration because of how good is potential really is.
Some think that if he does takes that next step in his progression he could compete with Tua as the best in the conference, but that has yet to materialize on the field.
From what we are hearing, Bentley’s offseason was productive and he’s feeling as confident as he’s ever been.
That’s good news, but is it just offseason talk?
While early games don’t often display the most polished product— case in point, Trevor Lawrence’s shaky 2-interception performance last night— if Bentley has taking that leap in progression there should be clear signs in Saturday’s game.
Look to see if his reads are solid, his passes are accurate, and his decision making is sound.
If early mistakes do happen, it will be interesting to see if the senior takes it in stride, making the necessary adjustments, or if he instead regresses back into the same pattern of inconsistency.
If Bentley shows those signs of improvement, Carolina could be in for a surprising season.
If, however, he shows more of the same, don’t worry about postseason plans, because the Gamecocks won’t go bowling.
Which back makes the greatest impact?
The initial depth chart has 3 co-starters listed at running back, and fans hate that dreaded “or” in-between the names.
While it is a positive thing that Carolina has 3 capable backs, the air of uncertainty doesn’t promote feelings of confidence in a positon that has been a sore spot for years.
When Tavien Feaster joined the team, many assumed that due to his elite ability, it would only be a matter of time before he secured the starting role.
Limitations in camp may have contributed to why a starter hasn’t been named officially, but an improved Rico Dowdle also plays a role in that decision.
From what has been mentioned, Dowdle has had his best camp yet.
It appears that the competitive depth at the positon has motivated him to the point of vast improvement, and a share of the starting role.
And so, we as fans, are left wondering which RB will come into the game first.
I’m as curious as anyone, but to be honest, I think that is perhaps the least important question in regards to the rushing attack.
Instead, the thing to watch for is which running back will make the biggest impact on the field.
Look to see who gets hot early.
My assumption is that the one who shows the most during their time in the game will be named starter for the next game, and from there, separation could take place.
Will the offense start quick?
One of the most frustrating things as a fan is starting slow offensively.
After dramatic build up and anxious anticipation to see the opening kick, it is absolutely mind numbing to have the offense immediately let the air out of the building with a quick 3-and-out.
With Deebo Samuel’s early game sparks long gone, there will be more pressure than ever on Bryan McClendon’s offense to start hot and stay hot.
With a schedule as brutal as the one Carolina will face, early possessions matter just as much as late ones.
Getting behind in games like Alabama, Georgia, A&M, and Clemson, will virtually be a death sentence.
To prepare for what is to come, Saturday’s game will be an appropriate time to prove that the days off sputtering around in the opening half is in the past.
Look to see how the offense attacks in the first quarter.
If they are productive, watch to see if they sustain it.
If they don’t start hot, hold your breath and cross your fingers that McClendon makes the right adjustments before Alabama comes to town.
How much better is the defense really?
We keep hearing from everyone that the defense has improved. However, the real question is this: how much really?
Off-season camps are completely different than live game snaps. Defenses can look dominant in practice but when game day comes they suddenly become lost.
Take for example the 2014 Carolina opener against Texas A&M.
That defense was supposed to be part of a reload process, not a rebuild.
With high expectations for the season as a whole, Gamecock fans had a rude awakening when they realized that that defensive unit simply could not make a tackle.It was a sobering moment that proved that “coaches speak” does not always turn into on-the-field productivity.
With that being said, Saturday’s game will be a good indicator of how much of an improvement there is with this unit.
We expect the secondary to be loaded with talent. We know that the D-line is stacked with depth, and we hear some great things about the linebackers, especially Ernest Jones, but is this just “coaches speak”?
Or is there substance to it?
When our defense takes the field for the first time on Saturday, we should know in a hurry.
I think that we have all the keys to be formidable.
We may even be dominant, but if we allow UNC— with its true freshman QB— to move the ball all over us, the rest of the season begins to look bleak.
Who is the next great Freshman?
Freshmen depth is not always considered a good thing.
Typically being forced to utilize youth backfires because of the lack of experience. From time to time though, a first-year player can adjust to the speed of the collegiate game and make a name for himself.
Last year, Jaycee Horn was that freshman superstar, and while we expect his sophomore season to be even better, the focus now turns to the next rotation of new-comers.
The early depth chart, as well as some comments from camp, has indicated that several freshmen will be used in the opener.
Jammie Robinson has won the starting nickel position and John Dixon has made the 2-deep chart at corner.
Watch for both of these talented young men to make an immediate difference.
Besides those two, perhaps the name that fans are most excited to see play is five star signee and true freshman Zacch Pickens.
The coaching staff had great things to say about his development in camp, and with him getting a co-backup position behind Javon Kinlaw, expect to see him contribute heavily.
The other name that sparks interest is first-year QB Ryan Hillinksi.
As the backup, he will only see meaningful time if things go either horribly wrong or wonderfully right.
While we want to see what he’s made of, let’s hope that we only see him come in during garbage-time after a Gamecock blow-out.
With so many young contributors, there will be a lot to look for.
If I had to put money on the next big thing, I would say that Pickens’ natural ability from the line gives him an edge, but certainly keep an eye on Jammie Robinson, because starting immediately suggests that the kid has some great potential.