- Sept. 3: at West Virginia (win probability: 33%)
- Sept. 10: Eastern Michigan (91%)
- Sept. 17: Georgia (33%)
- Sept. 24: Delaware State (100%)
- Oct. 1: at LSU (9%)
- Oct. 15: at Florida (23%)
- Oct. 22: Middle Tennessee (77%)
- Oct. 29: Kentucky (74%)
There are basically four stages to Missouri’s 2016 season: the first four games (with two likely wins and two hopeful upset bids), the next two (with two likely road losses), the next four (with four potential wins), and the final two.
South Carolina is the only road trip in stage three, and while the season could have gone in any number of directions by this point — the optimistic “Mizzou has upset WVU/Georgia and stands at 5-3 or 6-2 right now” scenario or the pessimistic “Mizzou is upset by MTSU/Kentucky and stands at 3-5, desperate for a road win” — it is both Missouri’s most likely road win and most vital.
My 2016 South Carolina preview for SB Nation was one of the more surprisingly pessimistic pieces I wrote in the series this year. Generally I have a decent idea of how I’m going to feel about a team when I begin writing a given preview, but occasionally what I find surprises me. Sometimes that means I end up talking myself into a team (Michigan State and Notre Dame are good examples of that), and sometimes it’s the opposite.
Here’s a Mizzou-relevant look at what I found.
1. Will Muschamp doesn’t inherit much
Optimist: In four seasons, UF never ranked worse than 33rd in S&P+. Whether you appreciate the style (and it's hard to at times), his baseline is pretty high, higher than South Carolina has managed over the last couple of years.
Pessimist: Yeah, but in four years, UF ranked better than 29th only once, and that was with top-10 recruiting. Now he's at a school that only recruits at a top-25 level. In terms of stars vs. results, he underachieved, and now the caliber of the roster he inherited is lower.
And oh man, is it going to be lower this fall. Attrition was stark and swift. South Carolina still boasts plenty of former four-star recruits but almost no proven entities. The Gamecocks' only proven runner is a quarterback who might play receiver. The leading returning receiver had 12 catches in 2015. An underachieving line has to replace three two-year starters. And a defense that was only decent at big-play prevention must replace its top two safeties and four of its top six tacklers on the line.
If Muschamp is to succeed in Columbia, it might take a while.
At Georgia, Kirby Smart inherits Nick Chubb, some blue-chippers at receiver and on the defensive line, and a seasoned, exciting secondary. At Missouri, Barry Odom inherits most of the components of last year’s awesome defense. At South Carolina, however, Muschamp inherits mostly lumps of clay. Sometimes a new coach can walk in the door, rearrange some ineffective pieces, and lead his team to immediate success. It’s always possible that Muschamp pulls that off in Year 1, but I doubt it.
This is a Year Zero situation to me. We'll start judging them in 2017. This year is about putting the right pieces in the right places and nothing more.
2. “A QB needs weapons”
It will be interesting to see what Kurt Roper can do with a blank slate. He tried a run-heavy approach at UF and probably will in Columbia, too, but two of SC's top three running backs are gone. He leaned on a bell-cow passing game (Demarcus Robinson, then a sophomore, had more than twice as many targets as anybody else at UF in 2014), but the receiving corps must replace four of its top five targets. [...]
A quarterback needs weapons. That could be an issue. Only two returning wideouts had more than five catches last year, and one (Matrick Belton) is a walk-on. There are plenty of former star recruits in the receiving corps -- sophomores Terry Googer and K.C. Crosby, quite a few incoming freshmen -- but none have proven anything yet.
Meanwhile, another former star recruit could feature in the backfield. Junior David Williams was the second-leading running back last year, but he did very little with the carries he got. Both Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson broke a few big plays; Williams did not, and he had the worst efficiency numbers of the bunch. He has two more years to reach his potential, but he hasn't yet.
Muschamp is waiting as long as possible to name his starting QB, but for the time being I’ll continue to assume it’s Perry Orth, who performed reasonably well last year. He does have at his disposal a host of former four-stars in the receiving corps, and maybe a guy like Terry Googer explodes this year. But it will have to be an out-of-nowhere thing. The only skill corps returnee who got a ton of action last year is David Williams, who had awful efficiency and explosiveness numbers last year.
3. The offensive line is a work in progress (but could be fine by November)
Four players return with starting experience, but three starters are gone. There is only one senior in this unit, so whatever SC produces in 2016, it should find more success in 2017. Still, as with the rest of the offense, it might take a little while to figure out a rotation and figure out how to move the ball.
Three longtime starters are gone, but I feel more comfortable about the line than I do the skill corps. Then again, it might be going up against a pretty strong defensive line.
4. We might not see a Muschamp Defense™ for a while
Talent matters more, but class and unit balance can help you to get up to speed more quickly. Muschamp and Travaris Robinson will face an awkward situation for two straight years. This year, they have to figure out how to attack with a senior-laden unit that hasn't been successful in a while. Next year, they will probably have to replace as many as eight or nine starters.
The best-case scenario for this season would be if some younger players forced their way into the rotation. And there are certainly quite a few former four-stars residing in this defense's underbelly. And if junior linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams were to discover his potential under new guidance, that would be all the better.
The most proven piece in the front seven, linebacker Skai Moore, is out for the season with injury. Guys like Allen-Williams, end Marquavius Lewis, and tacklers Dante Sawyer and Kelsey Griffin all showed flashes of attacking prowess, and maybe Muschamp is able to dial into that. But South Carolina’s line stats were dreadful last year with these guys — it takes quite a leap of faith to figure that Muschamp is going to be able to figure out too much in his first year.
5. The secondary has questions, too (but probably not as many)
In 2014, SC ranked 71st in Passing S&P+; in 2015, the 'Cocks fell even further, to 105th. The pass rush improved a hair, but despite decent experience and continuity, the secondary just couldn't get the job done. After holding North Carolina and Kentucky to a respectable 118.2 passer rating with four interceptions, SC allowed seven opponents a 135 rating or higher (including, most egregiously, Missouri).
So if we're spinning things positively, there you go: South Carolina could be replacing three of its top five tacklers from a good, valuable secondary. Alas, that is not the case. Isaiah Johnson and T.J. Gurley were decent safety valves -- again, big-play prevention was at least slightly less of an issue for the Gamecocks than down-to-down efficiency -- but they were at least replaceable. So was corner Al Harris Jr.
Four-star JUCO transfer Jamarcus King could have a positive impact quickly, and corners Rico McWilliams and Chris Lammons are experienced and decent. If a specific unit within the defense turns out strong, I would say the secondary is the most likely. But again ... it was bad last year.
There is potential on the roster. The quarterback is semi-proven, there are former four-stars at RB and WR, the offensive line could be decent, and the lumps of clay on defense are not without their skill/athleticism. There’s a chance I’m completely wrong about how long it will take Muschamp to make something of what he has inherited; it wouldn’t be the first time. But for now, I’ll stick with the opinion that it will take him a year or two to build something decent.