At 5-2 with five games remaining, South Carolina has set itself up to take a bold step forward in its second season under coach Will Muschamp. With the way Georgia is playing, maybe challenging for the SEC East title is too much to ask.
But that runner-up position in the division is up for grabs, and seizing it — plus one of those SEC pool of six bowls that would unquestionably follow —would be a really nice encore for a program that sneaked into the postseason a year ago.
Getting there, though, would take winning more games. The Gamecocks have No. 3 Georgia and No. 7 Clemson in their final five games, so they’re going to have to capitalize elsewhere when they can — beginning Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium against Vanderbilt, losers of four straight and a 7-point Vegas underdog to South Carolina to open the week.
Toward that end, here’s a rundown of what South Carolina has left, and an evaluation of how winnable those games are at the moment, on a scale of one to 10. Call it the Winnability Meter.
Saturday, vs. Vanderbilt
The Commodores once had an undefeated record, a victory over a top-25 opponent, and the best statistical defense in the nation. Then No. 1 Alabama came to Nashville, and it’s felt like the bad old days in the West End ever since. Vanderbilt has allowed an average of 49.75 points over its four straight losses, a number skewed by the Alabama game, to be certain, but also inflated by giving up 57 at Ole Miss and offensively-challenged Florida putting up 38.
That defense, formerly the nation’s best? It’s now tied for 85th. Even worse, the Commodores now seem unsure of themselves offensively, either unable to establish the run even with future NFL tailback Ralph Webb, or falling so far behind they can’t use it. Vanderbilt had last week off, but so did South Carolina.
Winnability Meter: 7. That Gamecocks defense, at home against an opposing offense that doesn’t really know what it is right now? That South Carolina offense, with an extra week to throw in a few wrinkles, against an opposing defense that’s been lit up the last month? The Gamecocks have long had a Jedi mind trick over Vandy, winning even in the train wreck of Steve Spurrier’s final season, and again in the opener last year. It’s hard to believe it won’t continue when so much is going right.
Nov. 4, at No. 3 Georgia
South Carolina’s last trip between the hedges was a 52-20 clubbing, and the Bulldogs are much, much better this time around. Georgia is just destroying people, winning its last five games by an outrageous average margin of 30.6 points. They’re second in the SEC behind Alabama in scoring offense, scoring defense, rushing offense, and rushing defense. They lead the league in total defense and red-zone efficiency. You get the point. This is a monster of a team pointed squarely toward the SEC Championship Game.
Can South Carolina hang in there against this group? Maybe, if the defense plays its best game of the season and gives quarterback Jake Bentley and the offense a chance. Can the Gamecocks win? That’s another story. That Notre Dame victory looks better and better for the Bulldogs, and the blowout of Tennessee was Bama-esque. It would be just like Georgia to lay an egg this week against Florida, but there’s something about this team that feels different.
Winnability Meter: 2. The one road trip all season that’s looked like a complete, unmanageable handful. The Bulldogs have things humming along nicely at quarterback, have the coaching staff making all the right calls (finally), and have barely been challenged all season. Hey, Gamecocks fans would take 6-3 after this one, right?
Nov. 11, vs. Florida
A Gators team that found ways to pull victories out of its hat earlier in the season (see Tennessee and Kentucky) has seen its luck run out against the meat of its schedule. LSU and Texas A&M handed Florida its first consecutive home losses under coach Jim McElwain, and now a third straight defeat potentially looms with Georgia on deck this Saturday in Jacksonville.
Assume for a moment that Florida comes to South Carolina at 4-4, snapping its skid with a victory at Missouri the week before venturing to Williams-Brice Stadium. Assume this is the same Florida team we’ve seen the last few weeks, with quarterback Feleipe Franks helming an anemic pass offense, and that secondary anchoring a defense that doesn’t have the teeth it did before all those Muschamp recruits left for the NFL. Can South Carolina beat Florida at home? You’d certainly think so, based on what we’ve seen this year.
Winnability Meter: 7. Franks has the ability to make game-changing plays on his own. But that South Carolina defense has been so solid, it’s hard to believe the Gamecocks aren’t capable of containing the few weapons Florida has. Bentley can’t make mistakes against that secondary, but this is an opponent South Carolina should be able to outscore.
Nov. 18, vs. Wofford
The good news: Wofford will not come to Columbia undefeated. The feisty Terriers lost their first game of the season this past weekend, at Samford. Good thing, too, because an option-oriented FCS opponent with a perfect record would have spiked anxiety among South Carolina faithful.
Hey, these things happen when you lose to The Citadel, which the Gamecocks did in their lost season of 2015. That Bulldogs team wasn’t unbeaten, but it was bound for the FCS playoffs, and it did use an option to run all over South Carolina. Wofford will be similarly disciplined, forcing that Gamecocks defense to maintain its assignments. But listen, this isn’t 2015 anymore. This South Carolina team is much, much better.
Winnability Meter: 9. Wofford has a fairly easy schedule from here on and should come to Columbia at 9-1, which would be enough on its own to have some Gamecocks fans hitting the Xanax. But that was almost a Southern Conference team The Citadel beat two years ago. Muschamp has upgraded the talent level on the roster to the point where a game like this should no longer be in question.
Nov. 25, vs. No. 7 Clemson
Speaking of teams that won’t come to Columbia undefeated … suddenly the Gamecocks’ biggest rival falls into that category after last week’s upset loss at Syracuse, in a game that left even Tigers fans questioning some of coach Dabo Swinney’s decisions. And now you have a huge unknown in the status of starting quarterback Kelly Bryant, who entered the game with a bum ankle, and left with a concussion.
What will Bryant’s status be four weeks from now? Who knows. But a team that looked like it was cruising toward another College Football Playoff bid now appears a little vulnerable. That defense is for real, and that running game is deep, and those skill players are fantastic. But on a night like last Friday in the Carrier Dome, they’re also beatable.
Winnability Meter: 4. Now, if Bryant returns to action and he and the Tigers return to their old wrecking-ball selves, this number certainly drops before Clemson arrives in Columbia. But from a Gamecocks perspective, that game last year in Death Valley was ugly, and in more ways than just the final score. Williams-Brice is going to be jacked, especially if South Carolina is a seven-win team by then. And remember the last game between these two in Columbia? A 3-8 program played the No. 1 team in America within 5 points.