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South Carolina vs. Virginia: Five Things to Watch

We’ve got some burning questions.

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

It’s Belk Bowl Eve, and while we can’t believe it’s here already, we’ve made it through the long and quiet holiday break to see some football one last time in 2018. Here are some questions we’ve got in mind as we ponder the impending matchup:

Can the Gamecocks defend Bryce Perkins? Virginia’s quarterback has keyed the Hoos’ rise through the Coastal division. A JUCO transfer, Perkins immediately set about rewriting Virginia’s record books, rolling up a program-best 3,314 yards of total offense and 31 touchdowns this season. In terms of quarterbacks the Gamecocks have already faced, his dual-threat skill set is likely most similar to Kentucky’s Terry Wilson — although he’s a much better passer. South Carolina, which has traditionally struggled to contain mobile quarterbacks, will certainly have its hands full with a very talented signal-caller in Perkins.

Can Jake Bentley keep it going? South Carolina’s quarterback has been on a tear lately. The Clemson game — in which he completed 64 percent of his passes for 510 yards and five touchdowns with just one interception — is the obvious highlight, especially considering the competition. But Bentley’s been enjoying a strong stretch to close the season, further boosted by his receiving corps managing to hang on to the ball. If Big Game Bentley makes the trip to Bank of America Stadium, there will be little to worry about for the Gamecocks on the offensive side of things.

Can South Carolina’s passing offense win its battle against Virginia’s secondary? This is a strength-on-strength matchup that will likely determine the victor. The Gamecocks boast the SEC’s third-best passing attack (277 yards per game); the Hoos have the second-best passing defense (180.1 yards per game) in the ACC. Virginia also has star cornerback Bryce Hall, thought to be a first-round NFL Draft pick, leading the charge. This will be a test for Bentley and South Carolina’s receivers, which leads me to...

Who steps up for Deebo Samuel? With the Gamecocks’ he-only-does-everything star sitting out to prepare for the NFL, South Carolina will get a look at life after Deebo. We’ve seen flashes of it before, when Samuel was dealing with injuries, but it’s for real now. Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith are the obvious candidates to show out here, but this is an opportunity for guys like Josh Vann, Randrecous Davis, and Kiel Pollard to put themselves on display, too. It’ll be equally interesting to see who ends up shouldering kick return duties, since South Carolina was still sorting through candidates at practice.

Can the defense limit Virginia on the ground? The Hoos like to lean on their rushing attack, led by running back Jordan Ellis. Ellis closed the regular season with 920 yards and a healthy 4.9 yards per carry average, and as we’ve seen time and time again this year, South Carolina can struggle mightily to stop the run. With a few key defensive linemen missing (D.J. Wonnum, Javon Kinlaw, and Aaron Sterling), it’s a little worrying, but the Gamecocks do get Bryson Allen-Williams back, and he’s one of the more disruptive forces they have on the line of scrimmage.