The saying goes that every journey starts with a single step. For the Gamecocks, the 2016 journey begins tonight in Nashville as they take on Vanderbilt at 8pm ET. The GABA staff got together and gave their picks on how this campaign - the first under new head coach Will Muschamp - will shake out. Feel free to post your response (or shame us endlessly) in the comments!
RKLawson: For me, South Carolina’s season hinges on the first two games: both on the road and in the SEC. If the Gamecocks can find a way to win both, then they’ll be well on their way to a seven or eight win season. A split should put them on track for a six or seven win season with a bowl game at the end. Lose both and it could be another long year.
I have the Gamecocks finishing at 7-5, 4-4 in the SEC. Need to take care of business at home against East Carolina, UMass, and Western Carolina. Find a way to take two of three against Vandy, Mississippi State, and Kentucky on the road. Follow that up with an upset win at home over Texas A&M, Georgia, or Tennessee. Win at home against Missouri and put up a strong fight at Clemson to finish the year. Obviously anything can happen, but a six or seven win season should be the benchmark. Even though it isn't fantastic, it's certainly better than 3-9 with a loss to the Citadel.
Sydney Hunte: The narrative seems to suggest that this team will underperform miserably and be mired in a rebuild. While this is light years from the program that went 33-6 in three years from 2011-2013, I think that they are a little farther along than people think. From the beginning, I’ve held to the fact that six wins and a bowl game is a legitimate expectation for this team, and I’m sticking by that prediction - UMass and Western Carolina are games they (should) win, while Vandy is another I’m marking them down for. I’ll go ahead and say that they’ll beat ECU, Mizzou, and either Kentucky or Mississippi State, but not both. I’m tempted to throw in either Georgia or Florida in an upset special.
Stephen Wise: As much as the general media tries to boil down our season to the quarterback battle, I think that the way the defense plays ultimately determines our season. Hopefully the young skill-position players step up offensively, and none of our quarterbacks are truly a BAD option. Defensively, they have talent, as six of our starters were former four-stars. If this group can play to their talent level and the coaching staff can make up for two to three years of limited development, this could be a potentially surprising unit. Our schedule is tough, but having Georgia come into Willy B is a major plus. Realistically, six wins would be a pretty solid expectation, but if this defense can jell and the offense grow up quickly, we could be staring eight wins in the face. I know that may sound crazy to some of the more reality-based fans out there, but this team HAS TALENT. Can the coaching staff make that talent show in just one offseason? I’ll get back to you in December.
Richard Avant: I’ve got the Gamecocks going 7-5 on the year, after a fantastic 4-0 start to the season. Each week I believe the Gamecocks will get better and the young talent (with a few veterans) can play together at a higher level than in 2015. I don’t believe that after a certain number of games, we will know what kind of team we’ve got. It’s going to be a yearly progression and growth for everyone, but there is enough talent here right now to play at a bowl eligible level. On top of that, Brandon McIlwain and Jake Bentley, I believe will be the only two quarterbacks at one point in the season taking snaps for the Gamecock, while being led by a solid Muschamp/Robinson-built defense that will be a top seven defense in the SEC this season.
Daniel Sweeney: I’m not buying the national narrative of this team not having talent and it likely taking years for Muschamp to get things back to 2011-2013 level. Recruiting has been Top 25 consistently throughout the Spurrier era - to me, player development due to poor coaching over the last two years is the culprit more than anything. Curious to see what underutilized talent can do under a revitalized, exciting coaching staff? Check out Auburn’s turnaround from 3-9 in 2012 to 12-2 in 2013 when Gus Malzahn took over for Gene Chizik.
Now, am I expecting a national title run? No, my garnet glasses aren’t that tinted. However, I’m thinking we go 8-4, with losses to UGA, Missouri, Florida and Clemson. I’m calling for an upset at home vs. Tennessee and a trademark head-scratching loss at home vs. Mizzou (though, not too head-scratching as the Tigers are on a 2-0 run against the Gamecocks). Oh, and we win the bowl to end the season 9-4.
SMcDowell12: Unlike some of my optimistic colleagues, I am not so sure this team is destined to win eight or nine games. I do think last year’s team underperformed and, with a competent coaching staff, likely could have hit six or seven wins. But this is a team that lost its leading tackler to injury and its leading receiver to the NFL Draft. While Coach Muschamp and his staff have come in and, so far, done a remarkable job, I am not sure this team has the talent to finish in the upper half of the SEC East.
So what are some realistic goals for this season? Well, I think going 6-6 or 7-5 is certainly attainable and should be the primary goal for this team. Also I think we steal at least one from either Georgia, Tennessee or Texas A&M. A better (read: competent) defensive scheme plus renewed energy should be able to drive us to victory over one of these teams. I don’t expect us to be blown out in any games this year, and I certainly don’t think we lose to any lower tiered teams.. Pulling one or two upsets, playing with energy and some spirit and getting to bowl game would mark 2016 as a success in my book. Expect the Gamecocks to be a six win team with a bowl appearance in the 2016 campaign.
Cockaboose: Will we have another craptastic season like 2015? No. I don’t think so. The team had an identity crisis last year due to the coaching staff. Here’s the good news: I predict that we are 5-0 to start the season. The bad news: we lose to UGA, Tennessee, Florida and that other in-state school.
Last year the defense was a mess, but that was last year. We have talent. Fundamental things can be fixed. Coach Boom is defensive minded and has been focused on fixing the problems. Plus, I predict the defensive line will be a lot better compared to last season. We’ll get into rhythm on offense - I predict AJ Turner and Rico Dowdle (when he returns) will give us the lift we need for the running game. Perry Orth is the starter for the Vandy game, but I see Brandon McIlwain taking over at some point this year. Finally. I predict we win eight games this year. Yep. I’m nuts. Eight wins. I’ve got faith. Mark it down.
DC3: If the offseason has taught us anything, it's that not having football in our lives stinks. You know what else stinks? Probably our football team. A much maligned defensive secondary unit will benefit greatly from a new and improved coaching/conditioning staff, but the talent is not much changed from the previous year, and that was before Shameik Blackshear got shot and Skai Moore had season-ending surgery. On the offensive side of the ball, we’re playing musical chairs with the o-line, running backs, wideouts, and quarterbacks, but otherwise everything is set. The whole “we don't know what we've got ‘till we know what we've got” approach is a bold move, Cotton, so we’ll see how it pays off.
With regard to the upcoming season. Carolina is in a pretty decent position, schedule-wise. The road conference games are just about all you can ask for, but if past experience is an accurate predictor of future success, we’re gonna probably screw up the easy ones and play great against teams we have no business beating. What will absolutely change this year is that the Gamecocks will be capable of scoring some points that don't come in threes. There's some crazy talent at the skill positions, but most of it has never played a down of college football, so don't be surprised if it takes a couple of weeks (if not more) to acclimate these kids to a completely foreign environment. The tempo helps that process, because there's no time to think, but the tempo requires your conditioning and coaching to be completely in line.
The upside, at the end of the day, outweighs the sketchy patches.
Prediction: 6-6, and a bowl win to put the Gamecocks over .500.
Key wins: Vandy, TAMU, UGA.