Welcome back to Rock M Nation’s annual opponent preview series of the upcoming season. Each week we will break down one opponent from the schedule in chronological order. Given that rosters are ever fluid - and this is done by a hobbyist rather than a pro - there could be some errors in history and current roster makeup. All mistakes are done on purpose and with ill intent because I don’t like you or your team.
Catch up on previous 2023 opponent previews!
I don’t know if South Carolina can be routinely good at football in the SEC but they are at least a routinely good football team in the country. Despite being a state with about 5 million people and few urban centers and a student population right around the same as Missouri’s, they have super close access to the majority of the best football players in the country and have enough of an investment to hang with the middle of the pack of the SEC.
And some years, they rise up and bite off way more than you anticipated. Check out their SP+ history:
South Carolina has been 14 points better than the average college football team nine times since 2005 and seven of those came under Steve Spurrier; the other two were Will Muschamp and last year’s squad headed by Shane Beamer.
So can South Carolina actually be an excellent team regardless of head coach? Or is that something that only Spurrier can do consistently and others only do every once in awhile?
While we ponder that question check out what the Gamecocks did last year:
At this time last year I crapped all over the South-Carolina-Good-Feelings-mobile by pointing out their record thusly:
- South Carolina vs. Opponents ranked 55th or worse: 5-1
- South Carolina vs. Opponents ranked 54th or better: 2-4
So it’s only fair that I give them credit for what they did in 2022:
- South Carolina vs. Opponents ranked 55th or worse: 3-0
- South Carolina vs. Opponents ranked 54th or better: 4-5
The 2021 South Carolina football team played the 9th-toughest schedule in the country and went 7-6; the 2022 South Carolina football team played the 10th-toughest schedule in the country and went 8-5.
In any other conference they’d probably have multiple division titles and maybe even a conference championship. But they play in the SEC and have one division title. Sometimes that’s just the way it is.
Shane Beamer - 3rd Year - 15-11 (7-9)
With two years in the books it seems like the career assistant coach might be a pretty good head coach after all.
Shane Beamer has been working in the college ranks since he graduated from Virginia Tech in 2000, and has had front row seats to “Program Management 101” from some of the masters of the industry, including Phil Fulmer at Tennessee, Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, Kirby Smart at Georgia, Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma, and - of course - his hall of fame dad, Frank Beamer, at Virginia Tech.
I’m not saying Shane is the next Hall of Fame Beamer to work the sidelines, but in two years he steered Cocky out of the ditch that Will Muschamp put them in and has increased the SP+ rating from a -2.9 to a +14.2 at the conclusion of his second year.
Another way to frame that: he took a program that was much worse than Missouri was at the end of 2019 and improved it to a higher level than Missouri was at the end of 2022 and did so in one fewer year than Eli Drinkwitz. Not too shabby!
He still hasn’t beaten those Tigers led by Eli Drinkwitz, though...
Dowell Loggains - Offensive Coordinator: Former offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield left Columbia East to rejoin his old Temple boss, Matt Rhule, at his reboot of the Nebraska Cornhuskers. I’ll miss Satterfield for his overly simplistic offenses that relied on explosive plays to move the ball and, typically, spun their wheels in the mud. However, it seems Shane Beamer really likes that style of offense as he brought in Dowell Loggains, a long-time NFL coordinator and, until recently, Arkansas’ tight ends coach. If you enjoyed watching the Chicago Bears offenses of 2016-2017, the Miami Dolphins offense of 2018, or the New York Jets offense of 2019-2020, then you’re going to love watching the Gamecocks play offense this year.
Clayton White - Defensive Coordinator: Clayton White made a name for himself while fielding some uniquely fun defenses at Western Kentucky which earned him the call up to the SEC. So far his defenses at South Carolina have been...fine? If nothing else they’ve played to an identity for the past two years which is to be one of the best in erasing big plays while being a sieve in giving up 3-5 yard chunks. I’m not sure he has the talent to not play like that again this year but his calling card before landing with the Gamecocks was to create a lot of havoc...and South Carolina was one of the 30-worst havoc generators of the 2022 season. Yikes.
Pete Lembo - Special Teams Coordinator
Montario Hardesty - Running Backs
Justin Stepp - Wide Receivers
Jody Wright - Tight Ends
Lonnie Teasley - Offensive Line
Travian Robertson - Defensive Line
Sterling Lucas - Defensive Ends/Outside Linebackers
Torrian Gray - Defensive Backs
As previously stated, despite have the former top quarterback in the world on the roster, South Carolina was an extremely pedestrian offense. They had some of the worst run-rates in the nation regardless of down and distance (93rd on standard downs, 92nd on passing downs) despite the fact that they weren’t a very good passing team (72nd in passing success rate). They moved slow, allowed some of the worst sack numbers and pressure rates in the SEC, turned the ball over way too much...and still boat raced Tennessee and finally beat Clemson. And now the offense will be run by a guy who, up until two years ago, had been an NFL lifer and the driver of some of the worst offenses put on the field over the past 8 years. We’ll see if Dowell Loggains can do better than “4th-worst offense in the NFL” (his best finish, mind you!) but, given the inefficiencies of last year’s Gamecock offense and his lack of proven track record, I’m not feeling optimistic.
Quarterback - Spencer Rattler - Redshirt Senior
In my Kentucky preview I asked if Devin Leary was actually a good quarterback and now I am screaming the same question about Spencer Rattler. In 20 games of action for a loaded offense with one of the best offensive minds on the planet, Oklahoma-flavored Spencer Rattler managed excellent ANY/A number (9.2, 9.3, and 7.1 for his respective three years), took minimal sacks, had a good ability to scoot for yardage when needed, and rarely threw interceptions. In his one year at South Carolina he had a sub-par ANY/A of 6.2 (the exact same as Brady Cook, for what it’s worth), took almost as many sacks (31) as he did in three years combined at Oklahoma (34), and threw the same amount of interceptions in one year as he did in his Oklahoma career (12). All while contributing a 5.4 average yards per carry over a mere 42 rushes for 226 yards and having the worst completion percentage of his career despite leading the country with a whopping 40% of his passes being at or behind the line of scrimmage.
The dude has talent, no doubt about it, but last year’s offense put him in constant position to throw the ball and - outside of a few games at the end of the year - he did not deliver. And with a lackluster running game that doesn’t seem to be getting any better and an uninspired coordinator hire, Rattler will need a Herculean-level of improvement this summer to endorse the “dark horse Heisman contender” rumors swirling out of the lesser Columbia.
Running Back - Juju McDowell - Junior
Last year’s leading rusher, MarShawn Lloyd, went from USC East in Columbia to USC West in Los Angeles and is now a Trojan. Last year’s second leading rusher, tight end Jaheim Bell, transferred to Florida State and, for good measure, their third-most used running back transferred to Wake Forest. And who did they add from the transfer portal to replace this lost production? One dude: Mario Anderson, Jr. from a school called Newberry. They still have last year’s third-leading overall rusher in Juju McDowell but he only had 62 carries for 219 yards. There are seven guys to pick from on the roster but all of them lack much experience and snap counts. If blue-chipper Dontavius Braswell is the real deal he could certainly be looked to have a breakout for the ‘Cocks as he should absolutely be given equal chance to crack the rotation, given what remains. However, the running game wasn’t a major focal point last year and, barring some surprise leap, it will be hard to see them making a huge impact this year.
Wide Receiver - Antwane Wells, Jr. - Senior
Six receivers earned more than 10 targets in the passing game last year and only two - Jalen Brooks (47 targets) and Josh Vann (30 targets) - are gone. Tight ends Jaheim Bell and Austin Stogner are also off the roster and combined for 59 targets, 45 catches, and 441 yards. However, Antwane Wells nearly had a 1,000-yard receiving season and returns, as well as slot-receiver extraordinaire Ahmarean Brown and Xavier Legette. Memphis graduate transfer Eddie Lewis could see some time on the outside, as could one of the litany of 3-star athletes that are built like receivers that South Carolina signed in their freshmen class. Also keep an eye on Nyckoles Harbor, a rare 5-star tight end who signed with USC East in February. Given that there are more proven weapons here I’d assume that Loggains will focus on Rattler throwing to these guys again but, for their sake, I hope the deep passing game opens up to let these guys thrive.
It seems that Clayton White looked at his defensive roster last year and realized he didn’t have the dudes to play the way he wanted. In reaction to this, White leaned on his secondary to play a shell in the back seven and limit the potential damage done, ranking 42nd in pass defense and 12th defending explosive plays. The tradeoff? Fielding one of the worst rushing defenses on the planet. If an opponent wasn’t passing they could do almost anything they wanted, whether running the ball (127th-ranked rush defense), keeping defenders out of the backfield (110th in sack rate, 130th in run stuffs), avoiding 3rd-downs (101st in plays run on 1st and 2nd down) and excelling at any down and distance. South Carolina also gets a hard reset on edge rushers and linebackers this year, so it’s hard to see any sort of improvement. Good for everyone who has to play the Gamecocks, bad for Clayton White’s long-term employment goals.
Defensive Line - Tonka Hemingway - Senior
Despite playing on the interior of the line, Tonka Hemingway lead the defense with 4 sacks and was second on the team with 21 quarterback pressures. His friend on the interior of the line, Alex Huntley, also returns but the Gamecocks lose two of the four linemen who earned more than 220 snaps last year. To add insult to injury, three of their edge rushers transferred elsewhere, leading a thin position that lacked production even thinner. They brought in Jaron Willis from Ole Miss and Jatius Geer from Syracuse to add some depth and have three blue-chip defensive linemen recruits incoming from the high school ranks. But, even with numbers coming in, it’s hard to see this position group getting that much better in one year.
Tonka is good though. And is a dude named Tonka. That rocks.
Linebacker - Debo Williams - Redshirt Junior
South Carolina loses four of their top five linebackers, leaving Debo Williams and his 37 tackles on 301 snaps the most experienced ‘backer on the roster. Even with 11 linebackers listed on the depth chart there is an extreme lack of experience and it doesn’t look like Beamer and friends added in linebackers from the portal, and they only signed one linebacker in the most recent recruiting class. The linebackers were the most havoc-inducing dudes on the defense last year and are now getting a hard reset.
Defensive Back - Nick Emmanwori - Sophomore
The Gamecock secondary was key in limiting offense from effectively throwing the ball, and then-freshman-now-sophomore Nick Emmanwori was one of the key reasons for that. However, they do lose three of their top six defensive backs, didn’t bring any in from the portal, and have four 3-star freshman incoming. Truthfully, there’s plenty of options to pick from as they have 18 defensive backs listed on the roster. But only three have more than 250 snaps worth of experience last year and it would certainly make them feel better if their best defensive unit had some more seasoned dudes to pick from.
So what does it all mean?
Look...it’s the offseason, and that’s the time where optimism is at its highest. And, truthfully, I can understand most of the hope-ium that gets tossed around about each team in the East at this point. Georgia is Georgia and will probably be challenging for another national title; Tennessee still has the Heupel offense; Missouri is in its “put up or shut up season” with Drinkwitz and returns the 2nd-most production of any team in the nation; Kentucky replaced an NFL quarterback with another probable NFL quarterback and got their awesome OC back; hell, Vanderbilt is building and you can see the improvement!
I don’t get it with South Carolina, though.
The catalyst for most of that optimism - Spencer Rattler - was not impressive at all last year. A terrible rushing attack lost its best player and most of its depth and will be looking at either a freshman or a small-school transfer to supplement it’s seldom-used backup. The receivers are talented and proven but need a more dynamic strategy to utilize their skills and Beamer just brought in one of the worst NFL coordinators out there. The defense is losing at least half of each level of position group and they were absolutely dreadful in stopping the run.
Yes, they waxed Tennessee. Yes, they beat a great-but-definitely-down Clemson team for the first time since 2013. Yes, they’ve won 15 games in two years and salvaged a wreck that most people thought would take three years to clear out.
But I just don’t see a team losing that much production and getting better, especially with a lack of transfers in and a new scheme on offense.
South Carolina will be in the best Columbia a week after playing a rebuilding Florida at home; that comes after a three week stretch of playing Georgia, Mississippi State, and Tennessee before their bye week so they could already be a 3-3 or 2-4 by that point. Missouri, on the other hand, will be coming off a road trip to Kentucky and the home game against the Gamecocks will be the last tilt before their bye week.
This game tends to be a good one, regardless of when and where it happens. There have been three games with a 21+ point margin but, for the most part, it’s a 10-to-14 point affair most years.
If South Carolina is not nearly as good as others they’ll be and Missouri is as good as the returning production numbers hint at, you could see Missouri extending its current 4-game winning streak at home. But I’m not going to say anything is for sure, I don’t need to put that evil hex out in the world.