I'm sure there are a great many people out there who will feel like my projection the other day is a bit too optimistic - and that's fine with me. I understand the concerns heading into this season. We didn't have many playmakers in 2015, we're going to be inexperienced at most of the offensive skill positions, we have a brand new coaching staff running a brand new scheme, etc. All of these are valid and legitimate points and if you think we're going to be terrible again this season, that's your prerogative. I can't say I blame you for not getting your hopes too high, I've been there. This, however, is my rebuttal to that line of thinking, and the main reasons I feel like we will have a strong bounce back year:
1. Playmaking ability at quarterback. As you have probably seen by now from reading my predictions of each game, I fully expect Brandon McIlwain to play a big role in the 2016 season for South Carolina. However, even if he does not, we now have enough talent at that position to put ourselves in a position to be successful. It's no secret that QB is the most important position on the field, and with McIlwain, Bentley, a sophomore Nunez and a year-more experienced Orth, I'm confident that someone on the roster can be more than just a game-manager at QB in 2016. Are some of those guys young and inexperienced? Absolutely. But the talent is there and I expect it to shine through, which is something we sorely lacked in 2015.
2. Competent defensive coaching and schemes. Let's not mince words here. Our defensive coaching and strategy in 2015 was like watching my beagle try to hump a pillow: a healthy mixture of amusing and pathetic. I am a staunch believer that our defensive personnel is not close to as bad as they looked on the field last year. Those guys were routinely coached to do things that didn't make sense and put in positions where they couldn't possibly be expected to succeed. When looking at our defensive roster for 2016, we have some talent. Now, it's about coaching the talent we have and putting them in positions to be successful. In that regard, our staff has been upgraded ten-fold. From Lance Thompson on the defensive line, to T-Rob with the secondary and defense as a whole, to Muschamp's defensive mind and oversight, we have coaches who know what they are doing on that side of the ball for the first time in a while. I doubt very seriously that Kelsey Griffin just mysteriously won't play on the interior this year. I doubt very seriously that we will never blitz, ever. I doubt very seriously that on third and long we will teach our cornerbacks to drop 10-12 yards off of the ball. Certainly, our secondary is thin, but we add Mark King (and Travaris Robinson) to a group that includes Rashad Fenton and Chris Lammons, who show promise. Will Muschamp didn't get a reputation as one of the best defensive minds in the SEC for no reason. Expect a more aggressive, more disciplined and better coached unit in 2016 that, for the first time in several years, won't be a gaping liability.
3. A solid offensive line playing in a scheme that will benefit them. The offensive line this season should be one of the biggest strengths of the team with starters Zack Bailey, Alan Knott and Mason Zandi returning. Couple that with the welcome addition of a former freshman All-American in Corey Helms and DJ Park, who has been in the Gamecocks' system for several years now, South Carolina is looking at a very good unit on the offensive line in 2016. Not only will the unit as a whole be a good one, but they will benefit greatly from an offensive scheme change that makes their jobs as blockers much easier. Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper wants to spread the ball out, go fast and throw it around the yard, but he also wants to run the ball effectively and establish the line of scrimmage. As great as Steve Spurrier was at dialing up play calls, it is no great secret that, at times, his approaching to the rushing attack was bland at best. Our simple zone run handoff from the shotgun worked some when we had Marcus Lattimore and Mike Davis, but was largely ineffective in 2015 and certainly didn't do our offensive line any favors over the last several years. Roper's diversified rushing philosophy and willingness to run the read option (a scheme that simplifies blocking assignments immensely) should produce an offense that can run the ball effectively; something the Gamecocks had no chance of doing in 2015 and must do in 2016 to win games.
4. Personal outlook and Gamecock philosophy. Everyone is going to bring their own personal thoughts and bias into preseason predictions. Here are some of mine: no matter what record we had in the previous year, I believe it is important to always hold our football team to certain standards. It is my personal belief that South Carolina's football team should always, year in and year out, be expected to beat Vanderbilt, Kentucky, a down Missouri, a down Mississippi State and all of our out of conference games that fall into these teams' same category or lower. That generally means six wins and a bowl game, at minimum. It is my opinion that, the minute we agree to lower our expectations below this, we are accepting failure.
Now, I'm not saying that beating those teams alone is the expectation level every single year. Certainly there will be years where we have tons of talent and we should expect to contend or beat the Georgia's, Florida's and Tennessee's of the world (think 2011-2013). Hopefully we will build the program up again to a level where those kinds of wins are expected every year. However, beating those teams above should always be the baseline. Our expectations should never fall under that, period. If we accept losing to those teams and can't say without hesitation, "We should beat Vanderbilt and Kentucky" then we, as fans, are part of the problem. This isn't me being optimistic, this is me being realistic. South Carolina, even in our weakest years, should always beat Vanderbilt, Kentucky, and a down Missouri/Mississippi State/Ole Miss/Arkansas etc. If you don't agree that's fine, but that's the way I see it.
Having said that, take a look at our schedule. There are seven games that, if you apply my line of thinking, we should be expected to win: Vanderbilt, Kentucky, East Carolina, Mississippi State, Missouri, UMass and Western Carolina. We should expect to win those games. You think it's too much to ask for us to beat Mississippi State this year? Fine. We go 6-6 then instead of 7-5. My point is this: yes, we had a bad year in 2015, but I refuse to lower my expectation level to the point that I don't expect to beat those teams. We are still South Carolina; an SEC school with top-notch facilities, great coaches, a stadium that seats 80,000 people, a Heisman Trophy winner and tons of All-Americans and NFL players to our credit. If we let one bad season change our outlook to the point that we can't reasonably expect to go to a bowl this year with the schedule we have in front of us, then we have a problem on our hands. I realize that we may not win 6 or 7 this year. For me, that would mean a bad year and a failed season. That's just what it is. I don't care what happened last year, my expectation level will never fall below going to a bowl game. Is that fair to Will Muschamp? Maybe, maybe not. But I‘ll be damned if I ever say that I expect us to win less than 6 games in a season.
I have great faith in the South Carolina football program and that is why I feel the way I do. If we really want to be the program we were just a few years ago, we can't allow ourselves to fall into the trap of accepting mediocrity. That's my two cents.
So there you have it. I've got the 2016 Gamecocks at 7-5. What say you? Am I totally off-base here? Do I aim too low in my predictions? Hit me up in the comments and let's talk about it. Lord knows we all need some football talk right now.
See y'all in 74 days.