South Carolina’s season opener against Eastern Illinois is just under two months away.
When the Gamecocks take the field Sept. 4, it will mark a new direction for a program that has been marred by mediocrity in recent years following an unprecedented run of success under Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier.
Shane Beamer inherits a team that won just two games in Will Muschamp’s final season. And while just reaching bowl eligibility in Year 1 of the Beamer regime would be worth celebrating like a division title, the Gamecocks must improve these four stats to near the six-win threshold for postseason play:
48.41% opponent third-down conversion rate
South Carolina hired Muschamp in hopes of bringing a hard-nosed, stingy defense to Columbia. Players like Javon Kinlaw and Jaycee Horn brought this mentality in spurts, but the defenses under USC’s former head coach largely fell short of expectations.
The 2020 season was no different as the Gamecocks finished 13th of 14 teams in the Southeastern Conference in opponent third-down conversion rate.
Defensive coordinator Clayton White is now in the process of devising a 4-2-5 scheme that can make the Gamecocks more successful on the defensive side. Given the system’s propensity for bizarre blitz packages and an added ability to move players all over the field, USC ought to be able to find more pressure in third-down situations. If not, it will be another long defensive season in Columbia.
11 turnovers forced
Sticking on defense, South Carolina struggled last season in reeling in enough turnovers to help out an offense that was in need of a boost.
The Gamecocks secured just 11 turnovers last fall — eight interceptions and three fumbles — which marked the fourth-lowest number in the SEC. South Carolina’s total turnover margin of -4 also ranked ninth in the conference.
With ball-hawking defensive backs Israel Mukuamu and Horn off the NFL, South Carolina has ample question marks in the defensive backfield. Cam Smith showed flashes a season ago and is a breakout candidate this year if his coverage skills take the next step. Kansas transfer Karon Prunty and Division II import Carlins Platel should also have major roles in their first seasons with the program.
The biggest knock on Horn during the draft process was that he only reeled in two interceptions during his dazzling South Carolina career. If the Gamecocks’ new faces can be a touch more productive in granting its offense extra possessions, it’ll go a long way in helping first-year starter Luke Doty at quarterback.
355.1 yards per game
South Carolina’s offense had a whole host of problems in Muschamp’s final year at the helm. Chief among those was the Gamecocks simply didn’t put up enough yards to keep pace with the increasingly explosive offenses fellow SEC programs have developed in recent years.
Junior running back Kevin Harris gave USC a much-needed lift in the run game when freshman tailback MarShawn Lloyd went down with an ACL injury during fall camp last season. Harris returns to the fold alongside a largely-healthy Lloyd and an increasingly impressive ZaQuandre White — a one-time Florida State running back who landed at USC after a stint in junior college.
The Gamecocks do lose Shi Smith at receiver after he turned in one of the more productive careers of any South Carolina pass catcher this side of Alshon Jeffery.
Beamer and his staff do welcome back two of USC’s top-pass catchers from a season ago, but they’re Harris and tight end Nick Muse. Jalen Brooks (11 catches) and Josh Vann (10) are the most productive returning receivers.
Doty showed brief glimpses of why he was a top-100 recruit coming out of Myrtle Beach, but it’ll be on him to manage an offense that has nearly as many pressing questions as the defense.
129 plays of 10-plus yards
As South Carolina’s offense slogged through much of the 2020 campaign, it came in large part due to the Gamecocks’ inability to rip off chunk plays.
USC’s 129 plays of 10-plus yards ranked in the bottom third of the SEC and No. 57 nationally. With Harris back alongside a talented pair of returning runners in Lloyd and White, South Carolina ought to be able to balance its backfield and set up more big runs as the season progresses and the rotation becomes more natural.
Given that it’s Doty’s first full season as the starter, offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield may not ask much out of him beyond hitting intermediate routes and occasionally taking a deep shot to keep the defense honest.
Assuming South Carolina’s backfield can be as productive as projected, the Gamecocks will have chances in the play-action game. Doty will have to connect on those opportunities to add a more explosive nature to the USC offense.
South Carolina 2021 football schedule
Sept. 4 vs. Eastern Illinois, 7 p.m. (ESPN Plus and SEC Network Plus)
Sept. 11 at East Carolina, noon (ESPN2)
Sept. 18 at Georgia, 7 p.m. (ESPN)
Sept. 25 vs. Kentucky
Oct. 2 vs. Troy
Oct. 9 at Tennessee
Oct. 16 vs. Vanderbilt
Oct. 23 at Texas A&M
Nov. 6 vs. Florida
Nov. 13 at Missouri
Nov. 20 vs. Auburn
Nov. 27 at Clemson