South Carolina won’t be participating in bowl season this year, but there is plenty of optimism surrounding a new era of Gamecocks football.
Could that positivity transform into on-field success as early as 2016? Perhaps, but not without some significant help.
Will Muschamp has his work cut out for him with both personnel and scheme adjustments over the next few months to help South Carolina bounce back from a lowly 3-9 campaign, which ended with five consecutive losses instead of an eighth-straight bowl game appearance.
Here are three things South Carolina needs for Christmas in order to have a successful 2016:
An answer at the most important position
It was not a good year to be under center in Columbia, S.C., and that’s putting it lightly.
Redshirt junior Connor Mitch started the season, but a 1-0 start was quickly swept under the rug as the quarterback suffered shoulder and hip injuries in the second game and missed the remainder of the year.
Junior Perry Orth and freshman Lorenzo Nunez both saw action at quarterback, but both endured a mixed bag of results during their time.
Nunez sparked the South Carolina offense, but injuries also relegated the freshman to the sidelines before he accepted a part-time role by season’s end. Orth wound up starting the most games, but he was inconsistent — at best — and struggled down the stretch run of the season under interim coach Shawn Elliott.
Those three, as well as incoming freshman Brandon McIlwain will be in the mix for the starting job entering 2016. A healthy Mitch should be the early favorite to win the competition, but expect both Nunez and possibly McIlwain to make a push.
A prototypical Muschamp defense
South Carolina’s defense was … let’s say, mediocre at best, this past season.
Fortunately, hope is on the way as Muschamp’s defenses were among tops in the nation when he was Florida’s coach.
From 2011-14, the Gators ranked No. 20, No. 5, No. 15 and No. 19 in scoring defense nationally. They also finished No. 8, No. 5, No. 8 and No. 15 in total defense.
Those kind of defensive performances would be welcome for a South Carolina defense that finished No. 71 in scoring defense and No. 97 is total defense this past season.
Additionally, Muschamp’s presence would go a long way for the Gamecocks, who finished with 20 turnovers (12 interceptions, eight fumbles) and 20 sacks this season, tied for No. 61 and ranked No. 97 respectively.
Lastly, the Gamecocks allowed more than 35 points four times this season, including three in the final seven games. Overall, the defense let up 23 or more points in nine of 12 games this season.
For perspective, during Muschamp’s tenure at Florida the defense gave up 35 or more points only six times in three years.
Whatever improvements Muschamp can make at South Carolina would go a long way toward improving the team’s mark in SEC play.
Finding a replacement for Cooper
Leading South Carolina wide receiver Pharoh Cooper will be playing on Sundays come 2016, leaving first-year offensive coordinator Kurt Roper to figure out who can help fill the void left by one of the greatest Gamecocks of all time.
Last season, Cooper led the team in receptions (66) and receiving yards (973), in addition to 10 total touchdowns (receiving, rushing and passing). Finding another player to immediately step into his place will be no easy task.
However, between South Carolina’s incoming recruiting class and the surplus of talent already in place on the roster, there are a handful of candidates that could emerge as offensive weapons.
Deebo Samuel, D.J. Neal, Shaq Davidson and Terry Googer are among the players that scream potential when you look at their skill-sets and earlier production.
Samuel finished fourth in receiving on the team with 12 catches for 161 yards and a touchdown, not to mention a 13.4 yards per reception average. The 6-foot, 202-pounder has a big frame and the speed to emerge as the Gamecocks’ top pass-catcher in 2016. We saw glimpses of his big-play ability this past season, and with Cooper now out of the fold, there should be more opportunities going forward.
In nine games, Neal hauled in eight passes for 104 yards. The 6-foot-3, 193-pounder saw limited action his true freshman season, but has the height to become a matchup nightmare for opposing defensive backs. With size comes potential, and that was on display as he got more involved in the offense later in the season.
Like Neal, the 6-foot-4, 226-pounder Googer boasts major physical traits that could benefit the South Carolina aerial attack. In 11 games, the then-redshirt freshman saw limited snaps, but caught five balls for 74 yards. A former tight end, Googer possesses the frame, but needs to find a fit in Roper’s offense.
Davidson didn’t see the field as a receiver in 2015, but the 5-foot-11, 175-pound South Carolina native was a standout at quarterback in high school and was considered the No. 36 receiver in the country coming out of Gaffney High School. The former 4-star prospect could wind up being a speedster if he makes enough progress in the spring and summer.