Now that the South Carolina Gamecocks have hopefully rested up and gotten healthier on their bye week, it’s back to the grind this Saturday against Vanderbilt. At 5-2, the Gamecocks are sporting a better record than they were this time last year (3-4) and are also sitting pretty as far as bowl eligibility is concerned. ESPN’s FPI rankings — if you’re into that kind of thing — have South Carolina pegged as somewhere between a 7- and 8-win team, which would be a phenomenal result in coach Will Muschamp’s second year.
Glancing at the SEC standings, the Gamecocks are currently second in the East division at 3-2 (5-2 overall), tied with Florida (3-3 overall) and behind Georgia, which is perfect in league play at 4-0. After third-place Kentucky (5-2, 2-2 SEC), the rest of the division falls off a cliff: Tennessee, Missouri, and Vanderbilt are all 0-4 in conference. There are some wacky scenarios that could put South Carolina in the SEC championship game, but I admittedly can’t wrap my head around them all and I’m more interested in examining realistic possibilities. If the Gamecocks keep winning, of course, I’ll be happy to revisit the subject.
With that said, let’s take a look at the rest of the schedule and see how it shakes out.
Vanderbilt got off to a bit of an attention-grabbing start this season, as the Commodores upset then-ranked Kansas State and quarterback Kyle Shurmur was stuffing the stat sheet. But ever since one of their players demanded “We want Bama” after that big win over K-State, it’s been all downhill for Derek Mason’s squad. (You do not, under any circumstances, ever “want Bama.”) Vandy’s closest SEC result so far came against the offensively-challenged Gators (38-24), and the Commodores were on the wrong end of beatdowns against aforementioned Alabama (59-0), Georgia (45-14), and an Ole Miss team that has also seen its share of struggle (57-35). Along with seemingly half the country, the Commodores were also idle this past weekend, so we’ll see how much they’ve been able to shake a rough stretch of conference play. South Carolina teams have historically struggled with Vanderbilt, and Shurmur and tailback Ralph Webb can certainly burn the Gamecocks if they’re feeling lazy.
Verdict: South Carolina should win this one, emphasis on “should.” Vandy has lost to the two best teams in the SEC, but it’s also lost to two that are nowhere near that level. At this stage, the Commodores’ hot start against out-of-conference competition may have been a mirage.
The South Carolina bandwagon, such as it is, will promptly derail, ignite, and burn to ash in Athens, Georgia. The undefeated Bulldogs, currently ranked fifth in the country, are the class of the SEC East and continue to have an unassailable hydra in their backfield between Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and reserves like Elijah Holyfield and D’Andre Swift, who have looked promising in their opportunities. With that excess of riches that also includes receiver Terry Godwin, Georgia’s offense has been rolling with 454 yards per game and about 38 points per game, both good for second in the SEC. Oh, and they’re doing this with true freshman quarterback Jake Fromm after he stepped in for injured starter Jacob Eason, who was supposed to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league this season. You could say things are going well for the Dawgs, who look to be on an inevitable collision course with Alabama in Atlanta.
Verdict: There will likely be a lot of weeping, gnashing, and rending of garments from the Gamecock faithful after this game, but the Bulldogs are one of the best teams in the country. While it may be frustrating that Muschamp doppelganger Kirby Smart has his team off to such an incredible start, Georgia is simply much farther ahead than South Carolina in terms of talent level.
Here’s where things get a little interesting. Before this season started, I had Florida pegged as the most likely “upset” the Gamecocks could pull in conference. Eight weeks through the season, my opinion remains the same, and has even been bolstered a bit. Last seen wearing horrendous gator cosplay while losing to Texas A&M, Florida has still not found an offense under supposed guru Jim McElwain. To make matters worse, the defense has started to fade from attrition, as Muschamp’s former players cycle out of the program. Florida has found itself on the wrong side of nailbiters (19-17 loss to A&M; 17-16 loss to LSU), but has also stolen a couple of its own (26-20 win against Tennessee on a wildly improbable Hail Mary; 28-27 squeaker over Kentucky). The Gators always have a good talent base to work with, but they’ve been marooned on the Island of Misfit Toys for quite some time.
Verdict: Objectively speaking, this game is a tossup, and will likely set the sport of football back 50 years regardless of the victor. But I do like the Gamecocks’ chances to be the slightly less terrible team on November 11.
The Terriers are this year’s honoree in the annual Little Brother Bowl, and what a regrettable opponent they are for the Gamecocks. Wofford’s triple-option attack is tough to practice for, infuriating to behold, and prone to dishing out injuries. The Terriers, who are 6-1 in the FCS and often a Southern Conference power, will almost certainly hang around longer than any polite guest should. The Gamecocks have had to squeak out narrow victories against Wofford before, and oh yeah, there’s also the small matter of South Carolina having recently lost to The Citadel, which is also a small in-state program running the identical offense.
Verdict: There’s so much to hate about having a triple-option team of any kind on the schedule, but this should be — and better be — a win.
Last but certainly not least, our favorite furry friends in the upstate. Because I’d prefer to not extol the Tigers’ virtues in this space — we’re all keenly aware they’re the defending national champions, anyway — I will instead use it as a reminder that Clemson lost to Syracuse, and it was good.
Verdict: You never know what will happen in rivalry games, but this won’t be the Gamecocks’ year to shock the world. Deshaun Watson isn’t walking through that door for the Tigers, but their defense in particular is still as fearsome as it gets, and much like Georgia, they are on another plane when it comes to talent. My hope is simply that this group of Gamecocks makes things a little more interesting than 56-7.
Overall, I find myself in agreement with ESPN’s 7- to 8-win forecast. Much depends upon the Florida game, although of course that won’t matter as much if South Carolina can’t take care of business against teams like Vanderbilt and Wofford. Seeing as I initially predicted a ceiling of six wins with this schedule, it’s fair to say the Gamecocks are finding ways to overachieve in spite of their flaws. Buckle up, because the rest of this season could get interesting.