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Early look: Will the Gamecocks finally end their losing streak against Kentucky?

Kentucky has been a thorn in the side of South Carolina for the last four seasons.

NCAA Football: TaxSlayer Bowl-Kentucky vs Georgia Tech Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

A three-year losing streak to the Kentucky Wildcats in basketball is one thing, but football?

That’s a stink that doesn’t wash off with one shower.

Yet that’s where the South Carolina Gamecocks finds themselves in 2017. The Gamecocks haven’t beaten Kentucky since 2013, but even then the game was much dicier than fans would have liked. South Carolina took a 27-7 lead into the fourth quarter before Jalen Whitlow turned into the second coming of Cam Newton and scored three touchdowns.

With 3:38 left, it took the offense to run out the clock to preserve the win for South Carolina. The point of this digression is you have to go back all the way to 2012 to find the last time South Carolina definitively beat Kentucky in football. This alone illustrates just how far Carolina football has fallen off the map.

South Carolina succumbed to another fourth quarter barrage by Kentucky in 2014 when the Wildcats scored 21 unanswered points — highlighted by a pick-six by Alvin Dupree — to upend Carolina 45-38 in Lexington. In 2015 South Carolina was in the midst of a fourth quarter comeback, put a failed two-point conversion which Kentucky returned for a deuce of their own ended the game 28-22 in Columbia.

Then last season produced the most hideous contest of the bunch — a 17-10 slop fest which Kentucky won yet again in the fourth quarter with a Benny Snell touchdown. The pre-Jake Bentley offense couldn’t muster another point, being sacked twice on Carolina’s final drive inside the Kentucky 40-yard line.

As a matter of fact, South Carolina has a losing record against Kentucky in this decade! The Gamecocks are 3-4 since 2010 against the Wildcats, losing in 2010 as well.

Needless to say, Kentucky has been a pain in the ass of South Carolina football far longer than it should be.

To make matters worse, this iteration of Kentucky football could be the best since 2009 when the Wildcats finished fourth in a much tougher SEC East. With eight returners on offense and another eight on defense, this is undoubtedly Mark Stoops’ best squad since he’s been head coach.

Starting with the offense, Kentucky returns four offensive lineman off a group that was the tenth-ranked run blocking line in the country by Bill Connelly’s advanced metrics. On the flip side of that, they were the 98th pass blocking line — so one would imagine that number should improve this season.

Snell returns after scoring 13 touchdowns while averaging 5.9 yards a rush on 186 attempts. Sihiem King makes for a more than capable backup as well, so when you add in a mobile QB in Stephon Johnson the Kentucky rushing attack should be top notch in 2017.

But it’s the passing game that will make or break whether or not Kentucky can take the next step. Johnson returns after a solid-ish 2017 where he threw 13 touchdowns to six picks at 7.7 yards an attempt in 11 starts. He gets back three of his five leading receivers, so if Johnson progresses as a passer and his line can protect him — Kentucky’s offense could be a big problem for opponents this season.

On defense Kentucky has plenty of experience coming back, but in the words of our editor Jason Kirk “If it’s bad experience does it actually count?”

According to Bill C’s S&P metrics, Kentucky was the 83rd ranked defense last season. This could mainly be attributed to the front seven’s inability to create havoc plays (sacks, TFL’s, fumbles, etc.) or stop the run in general. Kentucky gave up 5.3 yards per carry to opponents -- that was ranked 102nd in the country last season.

Whether it be in short yardage situations or even in longer, passing downs — Kentucky flat out could not stop the run. Even if the Wildcats return their entire linebacker corps, having to replace two of their defensive lineman won’t be easy.

Kentucky does bring back three quality defensive backs, including safety Mike Edwards who might be one of the best in SEC. Last season Kentucky was a middle-of-the-road passing defense, but if the Wildcats fail to figure out how to cap the run it could derail what could be a special season in Lexington.

So in conclusion, Snell will easily rush for over a thousand yards and the secondary combined with two good pass-rushing outside linebackers should keep opponents passing games under control. If the Wildcats can better protect their senior quarterback and more efficiently stuff the run — Kentucky is a dark horse contender for the SEC East title.