South Carolina kicks off its 2019 campaign on Saturday against the North Carolina Tar Heels in Charlotte, NC. The Gamecocks opener is crucial for a chance to erase the foul memories of their recent trip to the Queen City, a 28-0 drubbing in last December’s Belk Bowl. Will Muschamp’s team has worked through the spring, summer, and now fall camp to get that bad taste out of their mouths. In a few days at Bank of America Stadium, they will finally be able to take the field again and show a better version of themselves.
Gamecocks Opener Provides Offers Chance at Redemption
It has been a difficult offseason to get a read on just what South Carolina will look like this fall. This team has an abundance of returning talent and should be much healthier in 2019. However, going scoreless over the final six quarters of what was already an inconsistent season raises doubts. Add to that the grueling schedule that includes the nation’s top three teams and things get even cloudier. All of these factors make the Gamecocks opener that much more crucial. A strong performance over the Tar Heels could ease some of the concerns fans and pundits have. The Belk Bowl Kickoff provides an opportunity for South Carolina to prove it is a far better team than their last performance showed.
Tar Heel State Dominance
Twenty years ago, during Lou Holtz’s first season in charge, South Carolina lost low scoring affairs with North Carolina State and East Carolina. This program hasn’t lost to a team from the Tar Heel State since. The Gamecocks opener will offer up another match-up with a northern neighbor, and a chance to extend this current streak to 11 straight victories. During the last 20 seasons, South Carolina has spread its superiority evenly across three schools. The Gamecocks have beaten ECU four times, and have three consecutive victories over the Wolf Pack and Tar Heels since the turn of the century.
Defense has been the key to this recent run of dominance. In the ten games against opponents from the state of North Carolina since the 1999 season, the Gamecocks are allowing a mere 15.3 points per contest. Only once have they allowed more than 30 points. That was in a wild 2011 season opener with East Carolina, where the defense still forced five turnovers and scored a touchdown. South Carolina is also 3-0 in the Belk Kickoff Classic heading into Saturday’s match-up. Appalachian State is also on the schedule in November this season, so the border wars don’t end after Saturday.
The Gamecocks opener will also provide our first glimpse at a restocked and healthy defense. This unit was decimated by injuries in 2018. The players that remained off the training table didn’t fare well either. After allowing 27 points and 428 yards per game, the Gamecock defense needs to take a big step forward. They have the talent to do just that. Veteran defensive linemen Javon Kinlaw and D.J. Wonnum are both expected to have big senior seasons. They should compete for conference and national honors. The depth in the trenches is as good as it has been since coach Muschamp took over. They have the numbers to rotate players and keep guys fresh, and the talent to be much more disruptive in the opponent’s backfield.
The lack of forced turnovers was almost as glaring as the yards and points allowed in 2018. South Carolina’s defense created only 13 turnovers a season ago. This year’s group must be more aggressive and opportunistic. The development of Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu as the starting tandem at corner should help in that regard. Horn has all the makings of a star player and a lockdown corner. He had eight passes defended as a true freshman and is aiming to turn some of those deflections into interceptions in 2019. Mukuamu has the size and range to be a disruptive force in coverage as well. The safety position was hit particularly hard by injuries last year. That group is now healthy and deeper as the Gamecocks opener approaches. Keep an eye out for true freshman Jammie Robinson, he has really impressed in camp and will see plenty of action.
One Last Ride
Jake Bentley and Rico Dowdle have had different career paths while in garnet and black. The one common point between the two is their inconsistency. That has made it hard to tell which version of each player will show up on a given week. Bentley is entering his fourth season as the starter under center. He has shown the ability to pick apart defenses when he gets in a groove, but his consistency has been an issue. If he can put it all together and protect the football better, he has the skills and talent around him to have a big season. His decision making has at times been his biggest detriment. If he cleans up the mistakes he could put up some gaudy numbers.
Dowdle has been hampered by both inconsistencies and injuries while in Columbia. Like Bentley, the tailback from Asheville, NC has shown the ability to make plays. He also frustrated with some poor performances. The senior had three one hundred yard games a season ago but totaled just 61 yards in the contests following those big games. He also seems to always be dealing with nagging injuries, which is not that uncommon considering the physical grind a running back endures. His health and attitude have been at a high level according to coaches. They say he has had a great fall camp. The addition of transfer Tavien Feaster has raised the competition in the tailback room. Dowdle appears to have stepped up to that challenge. More consistent production from the rushing attack will also help Bentley.
Gamecocks Opener; A Must Win?
It is a lot of, possibly unnecessary, pressure to categorize the Gamecocks opener as a must-win. However, with the uncertainties after last season and such a daunting schedule, it is imperative for coach Muschamp’s team to get off to a positive start. Facing a neighboring rival at the site of last season’s biggest failure can be a blessing for this team. They should come out on the field with a point to prove, and a fire to compete. By all accounts, the focus and effort have been at a high level all offseason. All the work this team put in during spring practice, summer workouts, and fall camp has been leading up to kick off on Saturday. The 2019 season is upon us. South Carolina now has its first chance to show how much they have grown.