South Carolina is back on the road after one week at home — and back in SEC play.
The Gamecocks face off with Kentucky (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network) on Saturday. We take a look at five keys for the Gamecocks:
1. Build up
For the second time, South Carolina has an opportunity to generate a winning streak this season. A beating at Mississippi State thwarted the first attempt, but the Gamecocks have another one early.
Will Muschamp liked the way his players came to work Sunday after beating East Carolina, 20-15, on Saturday. The Gamecocks have a few more days of practice to continue developing consistency and lead into the trip to Kentucky. They have a good opportunity to build on the momentum from that game and the positives found against the Pirates.
2. Break the streak
What is it about Kentucky that gives the Gamecocks so much trouble? USC has dropped two in a row to the Wildcats now. Last season’s 26-22 loss in Columbia and the Gamecocks’ 45-38 loss in Lexington two seasons ago followed the recent trend of close contests between the two teams – six of the past eight decided by a touchdown or less.
A close one should be on tap again between two teams still figuring quite a bit out. But if there is a mental hurdle in playing Kentucky for the Gamecocks, it needs to be eradicated early this week.
3. Develop offensive line cohesion
The Gamecocks have started three different offensive lines through the first three games. Saturday marks the first opportunity to roll out the same lineup that started against East Carolina.
Chemistry and playing together is important at every position, but it may affect the offensive line the most. The more snaps the lineup of Mason Zandi, Zack Bailey, Alan Knott, Cory Helms and D.J. Park gets together, the more they can improve as a group.
South Carolina has an opportunity to win big in the trenches against the Wildcats, who are allowing 243 rushing yards per game this season.
Quarterbacl Brandon McIlwain is bringing more rushing ability to the offense, which should see a wider variety of run plays now. Running back David Williams had a strong performance against East Carolina and A.J. Turner is still showing flashes of the player he can be.
4. Stop the run
Mississippi State spread out the South Carolina defense and had no problem shredding it. That experience helped with East Carolina, which ran a more pass-heavy spread than the Bulldogs.
Kentucky is somewhere in between, but leaning to the run-heavy side. The Gamecocks have seen the spread two weeks in a row with very mixed results. The tackling performance was much better against the Pirates. The defense will have to rise to the challenge again against running back Boom Williams and quarterback Stephen Johnson.
5. Get the W
Muschamp, as would be expected, was blunt in saying he would rather be 3-0 when asked by a reporter Tuesday if he had thought about being one win shy of last season’s win total.
But what he wasn’t going to say is the Gamecocks can leave Lexington at 3-1, which is as good a start as could be expected from a team filled with question marks and hit by injuries at key spots. The goal that Muschamp has talked about many times is wanting to win now.
Making a bowl game looked like the peak for this South Carolina team and still does. It appears more likely than it did a month ago. If the Gamecocks leave Kentucky with a win, they can look at games with UMass, Western Carolina and Missouri as three other must-wins to make a bowl game.
All things considered, the Gamecocks are in a good place and could be in an even better one after Saturday.