When you're making your picks in the SEC, you'll probably look at the East and write "Georgia" down in pencil. You might even write it in ink based on how the Bulldogs steamrolled through the division last season. That pick probably won't come back to bite you. But if there's one team that can sink its teeth into the Bulldogs, it's South Carolina.
Entering Year 3 of the Will Muschamp era, the Gamecocks have gone to consecutive bowl games and reached the nine-win mark a year ago with a comeback win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl. Why are the Gamecocks the team to look out for in the SEC? Let's break it down.
Return of a superstar
Deebo Samuel only played in three games last year before a leg injury ended his season. Despite that, he still managed 250 receiving yards and three touchdown catches to pair with one rushing touchdown and two touchdowns on his only two kickoff returns of the season. That's borderline insane. Samuel is back, and the world has taken notice. He was voted a second-team All-American all-purpose player and kick returner by CBSSports.com, and a second-team All-American by the Associated Press.
"Deebo for 11 quarters last year was probably the most explosive player in college football," coach Will Muschamp said. "We're looking forward to getting him the ball a bunch and having him have a healthy senior season."
He's not lying. He's one of those players who not only demands respect, but demands attention. A lot of attention. His return is like adding an experienced, five-star superstar to an offense that not only has tasted success, but would have been better regardless thanks to Kurt Roper's exit and Bryan McClendon's ascension to the offensive coordinator role.
Samuel's return to the Gamecocks offense would be comparable to Julio Jones returning to Alabama or A.J. Green coming back to Georgia. Yes, he's that big.
An underrated quarterback
Drew Lock, Jarrett Stidham and the Alabama quarterback situation have dominated headlines at the most important position on the football field, but South Carolina's Jake Bentley is one of the most underrated quarterbacks in the conference. He threw 13 touchdowns and only four interceptions in the first two months of last season, before injuries all over the offense limited his options and teams loaded up to stop star receiver Bryan Edwards. It was during that time that Samuel's absence was felt most.
Bentley has the ability to stretch the field deep and will have the new offense built around what he's most comfortable with now that McClendon is running the show.
Bentley isn't going to be Baker Mayfield, Deshaun Watson or any other Heisman-caliber player. But his proven ability combined with more weapons and a more structured offense will help South Carolina contend.
Experience on both sides
In addition to Samuel and Bentley, just look around at the Gamecocks roster. There are a lot of names you should know still hanging around the program. Edwards was a bona fide stud last year with 793 yards and five touchdowns, and will immensely benefit from Samuel taking up the attention. Rico Dowdle, Ty'Son Williams and A.J. Turner have taken turns as feature backs as injuries have hit the position hard, and had varying degrees of success. With an offense that will spread defenses out and make those holes opened by a veteran offensive line bigger than normal, the running game should be just fine even if a true No. 1 doesn't emerge.
Then, you look at the defense. No, it wasn't great last year and it has to get better. But Javon Kinlaw and D.J. Wonnum lead an veteran defensive front that will not only benefit from the snaps they've already logged, but the depth that Muschamp and defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson has built behind them. T.J. Brunson has legit All-SEC potential after logging 88 tackles a year ago. Muschamp could start an all-upperclass secondary and sophomore Jamyest Williams plays defensive back and special teams a lot like former LSU star Tyrann Mathieu.
At the very worst, a nine-win season that a lot of these guys were a part of last year should make the 2018 edition of the Gamecocks a tough out on a weekly basis.
South Carolina's schedule is set up for the Gamecocks to play spoiler. They get Georgia at home in Week 2 of the season, when Kirby Smart's crew might not have everything set in stone for his new-look Bulldogs. They draw a dangerous Ole Miss as the rotating game out of the West at their place, and the permanent cross-division game vs. Texas A&M is at Williams-Brice Stadium. In terms of cross-division games, that's at least manageable considering that Alabama and Auburn still play in the SEC West.
If South Carolina can spring the upset over Georgia in Week 2 -- and essentially put the Bulldogs in a two-game hole (one via loss and one via head-to-head tiebreaker) -- that early in the season, it has a legit shot to win the division for just the second time ever.