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Five questions for South Carolina’s 2019 season

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Let’s pour over some hypotheticals.

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Football season is (finally) just around the corner, so I thought we’d take a break from opponent previews and change gears into some broad spectrum speculation.

Who is the most important player on offense for the Gamecocks?

At this point, I think we can go ahead and say that Jake Bentley is who he is: an above average to even good college quarterback, but not exactly a transcendent talent. (He’s a little bit the victim of his own success after having such a promising freshman campaign, but I digress.) The loss of human Swiss Army knife Deebo Samuel is a big blow for this offense, and so what I’d really like to see is the running backs unit take a step forward to remove some pressure from Bentley and the passing game. South Carolina’s ground attack has been absolutely abysmal over the past few seasons, and has seen some recent turnover as well: Ty’Son Williams transferred out, and A.J. Turner appears to have moved full-time to cornerback.

This means incoming Clemson transfer Tavien Feaster has an opportunity to make a huge impact. Veteran Rico Dowdle returns and is currently in good health, but has battled numerous injury concerns throughout his career and fellow vet Mon Denson has mostly been a spot-duty back. Under Will Muschamp, the Gamecocks have had a fairly nondescript Bunch of Decent Backs who are capable of some production, but incapable of consistent or game-breaking play. I’m not expecting Feaster to come in here and solve all of those problems — that’s a lot to put on his shoulders — but the former prize recruit has the chance to take the reins and add some juice here.

I’ll also throw in an honorable mention for Shi Smith, who looks like he’s primed to fill that Deebo-shaped vacuum. The Gamecocks aren’t hurting as much for talent at the wide receiver spots, but production from Smith will absolutely be important.

Who is the most important player on defense?

The defense has been a work in progress for coach Will Muschamp since his arrival, as the Gamecocks have had to scramble to put the unit together with a lot of young players and little depth to speak of. This season, though, should finally see that procress start bearing fruit, especially with the defensive line. South Carolina returns D.J. Wonnum, Javon Kinlaw, Aaron Sterling, Keir Thomas, and Brad Johnson, also adding former five-star recruit and top S.C. prospect Zacch Pickens into the mix. Pickens is supposed to be a game-changer the likes of which Gamecock fans haven’t seen since Jadeveon Clowney, and while those are incredibly big shoes to fill, we’ll certainly be watching him with interest. If the Gamecocks can finally start rushing the passer and generating pressure effectively, that trickle-down will help the rest of the defense operate in a mode that isn’t always bend-don’t-break.

What should be the biggest change between last year and this year?

Related to the above point, I’m thinking (hoping) that depth, especially on the defensive side of the ball, will finally come into play for South Carolina. The Gamecocks have had to play a lot of freshmen and first-year players throughout Muschamp’s tenure, and Year 4 is about the time that experience should start to pay dividends. No small number of USC’s losses in this span have come from getting worn down in the fourth quarter, or because one injury too many collapsed what was already a precarious house of cards.

What is the most important game on this schedule, and why?

Most Gamecock fans would immediately point to the Clemson game, likely out of force of habit if nothing else. While the annual Palmetto Bowl rivalry is indeed a priority, its importance has dwindled over the five-year losing streak that has also coincided with Clemson’s rise to national prominence. Unfortunately, South Carolina is not currently in a position where it can truly challenge the Tigers — or the Georgia Bulldogs, for that matter, which many fans consider USC’s other chief rival.

So with that said, I’d argue the Kentucky game is the most critical win to capture this year. The Gamecocks are currently on an unbelievably frustrating (and record-setting) five-game skid against the Wildcats, and this was a team South Carolina was used to beating regularly — even when the program wasn’t in great shape. If the Gamecocks are going to right the ship and get back to contending for the Eastern Division, they can’t allow Kentucky to continue lapping them.

When it’s all said and done, how will the Gamecocks finish the season?

I don’t want to keep harping on the schedule, but since it’s relevant to the topic at hand, I can’t help mentioning just how difficult it is. As such, I can envision this being the type of season where South Carolina does improve, but that effort is not necessarily reflected in the final record. I think 6-7 wins against this gauntlet would be a successful year, with the Gamecocks likely being sent to one of the SEC’s lower-tier bowls (fingers crossed it’s just not Shreveport). It’s impossible to predict bowl games, even when you’re not speculating in the preseason, but hopefully USC can at least turn in a solid performance after 2018’s embarrassment against Virginia.