The insertion of Jake Bentley as South Carolina’s starting quarterback kick-started a momentum-building final six weeks last season, propelling the Gamecocks to a bowl game and stirring cautious optimism for 2017.
Bentley completed 65.8 percent of his passes (125 of 190) for 1,420 yards with nine touchdowns and four interceptions.
He had his best game against Missouri, leading South Carolina to a 31-21 win by finishing 22 of 28 for 254 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Gamecocks went 4-2 down the stretch, including a win against Tennessee, to reach the Birmingham Bowl, where a 46-39 loss against South Florida awaited.
Still, that was an important step for Will Muschamp’s inaugural season as South Carolina rebounded from a 3-9 campaign in 2015.
If the Gamecocks are going to build off that kernel of success in 2017, getting off to a strong start in SEC play is probably very critical.
South Carolina opens against North Carolina State and also faces reigning national champion Clemson and Louisiana Tech in the nonconference.
Its conference slate includes games at Texas A&M, Tennessee and Georgia, so it’s best chance for a road SEC win might come Sept. 9 at Missouri in the conference opener for both teams.
Here’s a glimpse at the 2017 Gamecocks for the second in our series of opponent previews for the Tigers:
WEEK TWO — SOUTH CAROLINA
Date/location: Sept. 9 at Memorial Stadium in Columbia, Mo.
Kickoff time (TV): 6 p.m. (ESPN2)
2016 season: 6-7 (3-5 SEC East)
Head coach: Will Muschamp, second season at South Carolina (6-7) and sixth overall (34-28)
All-time series: Missouri leads 4-3
Last meeting: South Carolina won 31-21 (Nov. 5, 2016, at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C.)
Top returning players: QB Jake Bentley, RB Rico Dowdle, WR Bryan Edwards, TE Hayden Hurst, C Alan Knott, WR Deebo Samuel, LB Bryson Allen-Williams, CB Jamarcus King, CB Chris Lammons, S D.J. Smith, LB Skai Moore
Key departures: DE Darius English, LB T.J. Holloman, DE Marquavius Lewis, K Elliott Fry
Five questions with South Carolina beat writer Ben Breiner of the The State in Columbia, S.C.:
1. Sophomore Jake Bentley is the _________ quarterback in the SEC?
Fastest rising. He came in as an almost assured redshirt and second QB in the class. Now, he’s on the short list for possible best QB in the league with a pair of former top recruits (Georgia’s Jacob Eason, Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham), a steady veteran (Arkansas’ Austin Allen) and a dual-threat beast (Mississippi State’s Nick Fitzgerald) .
2. South Carolina averaged an SEC-worst 3.68 yards per rushing attempt last season, so what’s the prognosis for ground game?
Better, but still waiting on the line. Rico Dowdle came on late as a freshman, and former four-star back Ty’Son Williams becomes eligible after transferring from UNC. That moves A.J. Turner toward more of a third-down role, which suits his skills. The question is can the front translate experience into production with a new coach in Eric Wolford?
3. Given the struggles with the rushing attack and the SEC-worst 41 sacks allowed last season, what’s the plan for improving the offensive line?
The plan is that four starters back with a combined 98 starts and a new guy in charge do all the things they’re supposed to. The team is rolling with a higher-upside left tackle and a right tackle who is moving from guard. A lot of the backups have gotten their feet wet, so that could create some competition. The staff said a couple times many of the sacks were on the quarterback, as Bentley didn’t have the experience to adjust plays/protections and tends to hold the ball some.
4. What are the expectations for Skai Moore and how much can his presence improve the Gamecocks’ defense?
There are expectations he’ll be a rotation player and likely starter, but no one is saying the tackling/interception machine from his first three years is guaranteed to reappear. If he shows that form, it’ll boost a defense about which Will Muschamp has talked down expectations. The group will likely rely on a few players who haven’t played FBS ball yet, and there’s not the full complement of even semi-proven pieces. The group did a good job of preventing big plays in 2016, but needs to step up the run defense and not let teams work their way down the field.
5. Who’s going to be South Carolina’s breakout star this season?
Deebo Samuel. In a sense, he broke out with 783 yards, 59 catches and seven touchdowns (six rushing) in an injury-tinged 2016. But he could well step into the role of one of the most productive pass catchers in the SEC next year. (Dowdle or Williams would also be candidates depending on workload).