Their season — and bowl eligibility — may depend on it.
It’s early, and we all knew this schedule would be a tough row to hoe, but it’s still fair to admit South Carolina has gotten off to a disappointing start in 2019. First, there was a dispiriting opening loss to North Carolina, which saw the Gamecocks blow an 11-point lead to a team that won two games last year and had a new head coach and true freshman quarterback. If that wasn’t demoralizing enough, South Carolina also lost starting quarterback Jake Bentley for the year to a fractured foot, which made fans’ sense of doom loom impossibly large after the season was only three hours old.
Hope emerged in the form of new starter Ryan Hilinski and a cathartic 72-10 pasting of FCS Charleston Southern the following week, but it was back to reality again when second-ranked Alabama came to town. While the Gamecocks turned in a much better effort this time against a Power 5 foe, the talent gap was understandably too much to overcome, and South Carolina walked away with the expected result.
Now, though, the rubber has met the road. The North Carolina game is a thoroughly dead horse at this point — throw out the coulda, woulda, shouldas, because it just didn’t happen and it’s not an opportunity the Gamecocks can get back. But South Carolina has a winnable pair of games against Missouri and Kentucky coming up within the next couple of weeks, and the way it responds will tell us a lot — possibly everything — about how the rest of this season will go.
You could make a pretty solid argument that we still don’t know what this USC team brings to the table. A lot of teams are disjointed, rusty, and otherwise a mess in Week 1; a romp over an outmatched FCS opponent is only slightly more meaningful than a spring game; and a 24-point loss to one of the most dominant dynasties the sport has seen is hardly reason to break out the pitchforks.
Most intriguingly, there’s also the fact this team has a new quarterback, and one who appears to have the promising talent his recruitment process led us to believe he did. It was unfair to expect much from Hilinski against the formidable Tide defense last Saturday, but he still turned in an SEC Freshman of the Week performance with 324 passing yards and two touchdowns. What can he show us against teams that aren’t a virtual lock for the Playoff and don’t have rosters littered with NFL talent?
We may only be entering Week 4, but the Gamecocks need to play with a renewed sense of vim and vigor. South Carolina is already operating on a thin margin of error — with a schedule that has Appalachian State as one of the non-conference “cupcakes,” you know you’re in for a tough hill to climb, and taking an unexpected loss in Week 1 doesn’t help. Unless the Gamecocks can pull a surprise or two against the ranked teams on their schedule, they badly need to win anything that remotely resembles a toss-up — and that starts this week.
Other than Hilinski’s play, perhaps the most encouraging aspect of the Alabama loss was the mindset of the coaching staff. It was arguably as aggressive and risky as we’ve ever seen Will Muschamp and company, and while those are necessary ingredients for an upset of a top-5 team, the Gamecocks would be well-served to carry some of that creativity into games like this one against Missouri, too. The fans have suffered too many losses with a vanilla gameplan and lackluster effort on display, and this is a chance to truly hit the reset button.
South Carolina and Missouri have played a very entertaining series since the latter entered the SEC, and it’s laid the foundation for a burgeoning rivalry. The Tigers, who have had a topsy-turvy start to the season themselves, will also be looking for some answers on Saturday. Hopefully, the Gamecocks can beat them to the punch.