With the season barely underway, the South Carolina Gamecocks will hit the road and open SEC play this weekend against the No. 16 Arkansas Razorbacks, their one-time “permanent” rivals and a program that is on the rise. The Hawgs present an early and immediate challenge, and we could learn a lot about the mettle of this South Carolina squad when it’s all said and done. Here are a few keys:
Get off to a better start offensively. For fans eager to get a look at South Carolina’s new offense, last week was a mixed bag at best. Quarterback Spencer Rattler flashed some elite arm talent and did things we haven’t seen a Gamecock quarterback pull off since the Spurrier era, but also made a couple poor decisions that I’m sure he’d like to have back. Most disappointing, though, was the playcalling, which seemed vanilla and largely lacked rhythm. After the moribund offenses of the Will Muschamp era, fans are desperate to see the kinks worked out on this side of the ball, and the offensive line in particular will need to step it up after getting pushed around by a Sun Belt team. South Carolina is still searching for a consistent identity on offense, and hopefully this week will represent a bigger step taken toward that goal.
Have a better day defending the run. Look, I know what I’m asking for here is something just short of a miracle, but the Gamecocks will have to find a way to limit the damage on the ground — and particularly dual threat quarterback KJ Jefferson — if they’re trying to come away with a win. Jefferson is, unfortunately, exactly the type of signal-caller that South Carolina has struggled mightily against, and he’s well-regarded as one of the best quarterbacks in the rugged SEC. The Hogs also posted 224 rushing yards against Cincinnati last week — picking up where they left off, after they led the conference in rushing last season — and South Carolina looked at times shockingly out-muscled by Georgia State in the run game. The Gamecock defense will have to really suit up in this one.
Keep the momentum going on special teams. Before I say anything else, let me clarify that I’m a reasonable guy. The type of performance South Carolina’s special teams enjoyed against Georgia State was, to put it mildly, absolutely insane. I can’t, and I won’t, expect multiple blocked punts, multiple 50-yard field goal makes, etc., each week. But the Gamecock program is in the type of shape where having a killer special teams unit goes a long way (not that having good special teams isn’t always appreciated, but you know what I mean). With yet another tough schedule amid a rebuild, South Carolina’s gonna have to scrap and claw for many of its wins this year, and the oft-overlooked third phase of the game could be a difference-maker in that regard. Special teams coordinator Pete Lembo has shown himself to be something of a virtuoso here, and I’d love to see this squad truly embody the spirit of Beamer Ball. After all, a huge special teams play is often a necessary ingredient for grabbing an upset against a ranked team on the road.