Folks, we’re finally here: Football is upon us. In a departure from recent scheduling trends, South Carolina is opening the season with FCS program Eastern Illinois, which is a soothing prospect given the recent turmoil at quarterback and general unknowns. This game should be a nice way to ease into the 2021 campaign for new coach Shane Beamer and company, so rather than analyzing keys to victory, here’s what I’ll be looking for from each phase of the game.
A balanced offense. Normally, when the starting quarterback is on the shelf with injury and a backup is pressed into service — to say nothing of a former grad assistant being pressed into service — the recipe is to lean on the run game, which is particularly appealing with South Carolina’s backfield and EIU’s weakness to the run. While I do expect to see plenty of snaps given to Kevin Harris and MarShawn Lloyd, I also want to see activity in the passing game. Nick Muse at tight end has proven himself as a reliable target, and the wide receiver corps has a lot of options, but few who have separated and distinguished themselves. Who will be this year’s Shi Smith? Can veteran players like Josh Vann and Xavier Legette take a step and take command? It’ll be hard to learn much from an opponent like EIU, but it’ll still be worth noting who shows out when the lights come on. Speaking of looking for new playmakers...
A solid performance from the defensive backfield. This unit looks radically different from a year ago, with attrition to the NFL and transfer portal upending the landscape here. Former stars Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu are gone, and R.J. Roderick — after initially leaving the team, then rejoining it — is among the most productive and experienced players left. Cam Smith and Jaylin Dickerson are also names fans will know, but the former hasn’t been a regular in the lineup and the latter has been extensively hampered by injury. This group is easily the biggest question mark on the team, and while again, performance against EIU won’t indicate much, fans will want to see some guys emerging here.
Beamerball? Another million-dollar question: Will Beamer take after his father and place a heavy emphasis on special teams play? It’s been a while since the Gamecocks have truly had a game-breaker at kick or punt return, and Parker White’s ups and downs at kicker have been well-documented (though it should be said that Will Muschamp often put him in incredibly difficult positions to succeed). Special teams are frequently an underrated or overlooked aspect of the game, and for a team like South Carolina that needs to find an edge anywhere it can, they can make a huge difference in the win column. I’m curious to see what the approach will be here.
Bottom line: The Gamecocks are 42-point favorites for a reason, and there shouldn’t be any reason for USC fans to sweat during this one. Although we don’t know what to expect out of this offense, EIU has, at the very least, shown the aforementioned weakness to running the ball, and simply shouldn’t have the talent to keep up in other areas. South Carolina should be able to roll up considerable yardage, accumulate a bunch of points, and not worry too much that Noland is at quarterback. I’ll go 51-10 Gamecocks.