South Carolina football coach Will Muschamp said he expects the 2019 Gamecocks to be his best team yet in Columbia.
The S&P+ projections, a system devised by SBNation’s Bill Connolly, seem to agree.
The metric, which weighs recent success, returning production and recruiting, has USC projected as the No. 18 team owing to strong recruiting (19th) and a high level of recruiting production (20th, although that might not account for Ty’Son Williams leaving). The system was bearish on Muschamp’s first two teams, which overachieved, and was less high than most on the 2018 squad that fell short of expectations.
And while the numbers expect a top-20 offense and top-40 defense, the schedule will likely mean a team that ranks among the top 20 in efficiency might not have a record to match.
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The No. 1, 2 and 3 teams in the projections? They’re on the Gamecocks schedule. Also on there: No. 6, 14, 16 and 21, all on the road.
Using S&P+, one can even get a sense of how the lines against FBS team might look for the Gamecocks.
▪ Vs. North Carolina (in Charlotte): South Carolina favored by 11.7
▪ Vs. Alabama: South Carolina a 17.5-point underdog
▪ At Missouri: South Carolina a 5.6-point underdog
▪ Vs. Kentucky: South Carolina favored by 9.1
▪ At Georgia: South Carolina a 18.8-point underdog
▪ Vs. Florida: South Carolina a 6.7-point underdog
▪ At Tennessee: South Carolina a 1-point underdog
▪ Vs. Vanderbilt: South Carolina favored by 12.7
▪ Vs. Appalachian State: South Carolina favored by 7.5
▪ At Texas A&M: South Carolina a 6.8-point underdog
▪ Vs. Clemson: South Carolina a 12-point underdog
That puts USC as an underdog seven times, though in four of those games it’s by less than one touchdown. In the four FBS games in which the Gamecocks are favored, two are against Kentucky, which South Carolina hasn’t beaten since 2013, and Appalachian State, an 11-win team in 2018 that is now breaking in a new coach.
The Gamecocks return more than a few solid pieces.
They’ll have three of their top four backs from the last few years, four of their top five most targeted pass catchers, three returning offensive linemen, OrTre Smith coming off injury and Jake Bentley back. Replacing Deebo Samuel is a big question, but considering the hype that’s built around the group each of the past two seasons, it could be a solid unit.
The defense was badly banged up by injuries and struggled late, but could reap the benefit of younger players seeing time. Seventeen players who made at least 10 tackles last season return, including almost the entire linebacker group, a set of talented defensive backs and a line that includes eight players who were four- of five-star recruits.
All this leaves the question of what will count as progress in Muschamp’s fourth season. His second year was a surprise, when a schedule softened and a bowl victory provided a ninth win. His third season opened with expectations, but came apart with inconsistent play, injuries and a slate that grew much harder than expected.
USC played the 10th-hardest schedule in the country last season, and it only projected to get harder. Even if the team gets stronger, it might not show just yet.