The offseason is about speculation, but the time is now for definitive predictions. With fall camps open across the SEC, teams are starting to take shape.
In our second installment, South Carolina tries to improve on its nightmare 2015 season. New coach Will Muschamp struggled at Florida, but Gamecocks brass believes he can help build on the earlier success Steve Spurrier had in Columbia. Though 13 starters return, almost all of the most productive players from last season are gone.
With so much left to be determined on the roster, here is how we project every South Carolina game in 2016.
South Carolina Gamecocks
2015 record: 3-9, 1-7 SEC; Seventh place SEC East
Vanderbilt – Sept. 1 in Nashville, Tenn.
The first game of the Will Muschamp era will be telling one. Vanderbilt has struggled in recent seasons on offense, but the defense has consistently been one of the best in the SEC. South Carolina must replace pieces all over the field, most notably at the quarterback position. Vanderbilt edges South Carolina, but there will be bright spots.
Prediction: South Carolina loss (0-1, 0-1 SEC)
Mississippi State – Sept. 10 in Starkville, Miss.
The Bulldogs must replace Dak Prescott, one of the greatest players in program history. Even so, Mississippi State still has a slightly more developed roster than South Carolina. Quarterback play will be essential in this game, especially if first-time starters Brandon McIlwain and Nick Fitzgerald match up. At this point, Mississippi State has more defensive options to cause mayhem in the South Carolina backfield. That, combined with home field, will be the difference.
Prediction: South Carolina loss (0-2, 0-2 SEC)
East Carolina – Sept. 17 in Columbia, S.C.
East Carolina struggled against a tough schedule last season, but overreacted and fired head coach Ruffin McNeill. First time head coach Scottie Montgomery was a star assistant under David Cutcliffe at Duke, and he has high expectations to meet. ECU picked up a win against Virginia Tech last season, but South Carolina likely has enough talent to get by.
Prediction: South Carolina win (1-2, 0-2 SEC)
Kentucky – Sept. 24 in Lexington, Ky.
South Carolina would like to win this game, but it’s a must-win for Mark Stoops’ program. The Wildcats have accumulated talent under Stoops, but the results have not yet followed. However, Kentucky RB Boom Williams will be the most talented offensive player on the field – by far. Unless South Carolina can quickly develop quality quarterback play, USC likely does not have enough offense at this point.
Prediction: South Carolina loss (1-3, 0-3 SEC)
Texas A&M – Oct. 1 in Columbia, S.C.
The Aggies are an enigma this season, but the difference in talent is noticeable at this point. Texas A&M might have as many as five wide receivers that would be the No. 1 offensive option on USC’s roster. And with defensive linemen Myles Garrett and Daylon Mack, the defense is also disruptive enough to give South Carolina fits. Things could be competitive, but Texas A&M’s talent will win out.
Prediction: South Carolina loss (1-4, 0-4 SEC)
Georgia – Oct. 8 in Columbia, S.C.
Even though Georgia has its own new coach, the talent level in Athens is miles ahead of South Carolina. Though UGA has key players to replace, Kirby Smart has five straight top 12 recruiting classes to work with. The Bulldogs have a pair of super-elite running backs in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Blue-chip freshman QB Jacob Eason also could have been unleashed by this point. This was a 32-point loss for USC last season, and there’s not much optimism that it could be closer this year.
Prediction: South Carolina loss (1-5, 0-5 SEC)
UMass – Oct. 22 in Columbia, S.C.
For whatever reason, UMass gave itself an incredibly tough schedule. The Minutemen play three SEC teams – Mississippi State, South Carolina and Florida. UMass has been an FBS team for only a few seasons, so South Carolina should be able to pick up an easy win.
Prediction: South Carolina win (2-5, 0-5 SEC)
Tennessee – Oct. 29 in Columbia, S.C.
South Carolina played Tennessee pretty well last season in Knoxville, keeping the game within three points. Perry Orth outplayed Tennessee QB Josh Dobbs, but a fourth-quarter field goal proved to be the difference. However, Tennessee is a more talented team this season and will prove it on the road.
Prediction: South Carolina loss (2-6, 0-6 SEC)
Missouri – Nov. 5 in Columbia, S.C.
It’s difficult to know what to expect from either of these two teams this season. South Carolina, of course, is in its first season with Muschamp at the helm. Missouri had a nightmare season both on and off the field in 2015. Barry Odom should reaffirm the elite defensive play Mizzou has become known for in his first season, but it remains unclear whether the offense has upside. Homefield advantage could swing this game.
Prediction: South Carolina win (3-6, 1-6 SEC)
Florida – Nov. 12 in Gainesville, Fla.
South Carolina caught Florida on the downswing last season and actually played the Gators relatively close. The loss was only 24-14, despite South Carolina picking up just 201 total offensive yards. Florida’s defense should be elite once again this season, but the season rests on the shoulders of QB Luke Del Rio. Though he has not been officially named Florida’s starting quarterback, he will be asked to help turn around an offense that regressed mightily after QB Will Grier was suspended.
Prediction: South Carolina loss (3-7, 1-7 SEC)
Western Carolina – Nov. 19 in Columbia, S.C.
There are not many surefire wins on South Carolina’s schedule, but this game should be. The Catamounts are a pretty good FCS program, but an FCS program all the same. In two games against SEC teams (Tennessee and Texas A&M) last season, WCU was outscored 96-27.
Prediction: South Carolina win (4-7, 1-7 SEC)
Clemson – Nov. 26 in Clemson, S.C.
Clemson played in the national championship game last season. Its quarterback, Deshaun Watson, might be the best overall player in the nation. Even keeping this game somewhat competitive will be an incredible moral victory for Muschamp’s squad.
Prediction: South Carolina loss (4-8, 1-7 SEC)
Projected record: 4-8, 1-7 SEC; Seventh in the SEC East
Analysis: It has not been long since South Carolina was competing for division titles, but this is not that roster. And this is the most shocking stat in the SEC East: There is only one offensive senior who arrived at South Carolina with a scholarship, thanks to attrition. Every other scholarship senior has left the program or is injured. Muschamp has a big job ahead of him. Four of the top six players in yards from scrimmage are gone. With star LB Skai Moore’s season-ending injury, three of the top four tacklers are out too. Trying to develop quality depth on a depleted roster will be the key in Muschamp’s first season. The results may not be immediately obvious, but Muschamp has the recruiting acumen and coaching ability to build a program – assuming he has learned from his Florida mistakes.