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Vanderbilt Football 2021 Opponent Preview: South Carolina

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This cursed division game.

NCAA Football: SEC Media Days Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

Opponent: South Carolina Gamecocks

Date: October 16, 2021

All-time series record: South Carolina leads, 26-4

Last meeting: October 10, 2020; South Carolina won, 41-7

Last season: 2-8, 84th in SP+, 96th in Sagarin

Head coach: Shane Beamer (first year)

Well, the Will Muschamp era at South Carolina went down in exactly the way that anyone who saw his tenure at Florida thought it would, a list that evidently did not include South Carolina AD Ray Tanner.

Muschamp got South Carolina back to bowl eligibility in Year 1, immediately after taking over a team that had gone 3-9 the year before (one of those wins was over Vanderbilt, because of course it was.) That was followed by a smoke-and-mirrors 9-4 season that included highlights such as a 17-16 win over Louisiana Tech, a 15-9 win at Tennessee, and four other wins by a score or less.

That was the high-water mark. Muschamp’s luck turned in a 7-6 2018, then the Gamecocks collapsed to 4-8 in 2019 and 2-8 last year. Muschamp got fired with three games to go in the season. The final tally was 28-30 over four-plus seasons, 28-33 if you count the three games coached by offensive coordinator Mike Bobo to end 2020.

In steps Shane Beamer, one of the least inspired hires by an SEC school in my recent memory. When the most notable thing about you is who your dad is, I have questions about why you were hired to be the head coach at an SEC school. That might be a little mean, but Beamer’s never even been a coordinator, unless you count his two-year stint as Georgia’s special teams coordinator and various stints as “recruiting coordinator,” including two years under Steve Spurrier at South Carolina. I guess that’s the angle here?

Anyway, if there’s a team in the SEC that’s in a similar boat to Vanderbilt entering 2021, this is the one, with a new coach and coming off a really bad season. The overall talent level is probably a bit higher for the Gamecocks (as evidenced by, well, the 41-7 loss in Nashville last season), but Beamer takes over a program in disarray — and unlike Vanderbilt, he probably doesn’t know who his quarterback is going to be.

Offense

In Will Muschamp’s five years in Columbia, the Gamecocks ranked 116th, 99th, 57th, 104th, and 99th in points per game. You can probably figure out why this didn’t work.

Anyway, of the three quarterbacks who took snaps for South Carolina last season, just one returns, with Collin Hill having graduated and Ryan Hilinski having transferred to Northwestern after attempting just six passes in 2020 — down from 406 in 2019. The lone returnee is Luke Doty (43-71-405, 2 TD, 3 INT), who started the final three games as a true freshman in 2020. The nicest thing you can say about Doty is that he didn’t permanently lose the starting gig with his performance, but Beamer still elected to bring in Jason Brown, a transfer from FCS St. Francis (PA) who threw for over 3,000 yards in 2019 (St. Francis did not play football in 2020.) While some coaches will bring in a graduate transfer simply for depth, this clearly isn’t that situation; Brown will compete for the starting job. It’s hardly a vote of confidence in Doty either way.

The wide receiver room might be even more unsettled, with Shi Smith off to the NFL. Of South Carolina’s 175 completed passes in 2020, 57 of them went to Smith; the next two on the receptions list were tight end Nick Muse (30-425-1) and RB Kevin Harris (21-159-1.) To be sure, there are some potential weapons here, like converted QB Dakereon Joyner (7-55-1) and 6’7” St. Francis transfer E.J. Jenkins, but overall the Gamecocks’ receiver corps is light on proven commodities.

If there’s good news on the offensive side of the ball, the run game should be okay with starting RB Kevin Harris (185-1138-18) returning for his junior season, along with four starters on the offensive line. Senior right tackle Dylan Wonnum has started 24 career games, and left tackle Jakai Moore, listed at 6’6” and 312 pounds, started six games as a redshirt freshman in 2020.

Defense

If there is a strength on this team, it’s the defensive line, which features two former five-star recruits in junior Zacch Pickens and sophomore Jordan Burch, along with a competent edge rusher in Kingsley Enagbare and Jabari Ellis, who returned for a sixth year of eligibility after starting eight games in 2020.

Then again, a defensive line with mostly the same players gave up 4.9 yards per rush in 2020. And while the back seven got some help with a couple of starters electing to exercise the free year of eligibility — linebacker Damani Staley (50 tackles) and safety Jaylan Foster (43 tackles, 2 TFL) — it also got hammered by the NFL Draft and the transfer portal. Linebacker Ernest Jones, the team’s leading tackler, elected to forgo his final year of eligibility, as did cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu. Another cornerback, John Dixon, who started eight games, transferred to Penn State; starting safety Jammie Robinson, the team’s second-leadind tackler, transferred to Florida State; and Shilo Sanders, who started four games, left for Jackson State (where he’ll play for his dad, Deion Sanders.)

There’s some talent in the back seven — R.J. Roderick started the first six games of 2020, cornerback Cam Smith looks like a keeper, and linebacker Mohamed Kaba started the last three games of 2020 — but it’s probably a sign of how much immediate help Beamer thought he needed back here that he’s adding JUCO linebacker Bam Martin-Scott and transfer defensive backs Tyrese Ross (Washington State) and Carlins Platel (Assumption.) And the elephant in the room, of course, is that this is a defense that got torched in 2020, allowing 36 ppg and 6.6 yards per play. But the turnover in the back seven means that there probably aren’t any quick fixes.

Special Teams

The kicking game is decent. Placekicker Parker White returned for a sixth year; he’s made 35-of-40 career field goal attempts inside of 40 yards, but only 21-of-42 beyond that with a long of 50. Kai Kroeger’s 43.3 yards per punt average as a true freshman ranked 7th in the SEC.

Dakereon Joyner is fine as a kick returner; South Carolina will need to find a new punt returner after Shilo Sanders’ departure.

Schedule

  • September 4 vs. Eastern Illinois 6:00 PM/SEC Network+
  • September 11 at East Carolina 11:00 AM/ESPN2
  • September 18 at Georgia 6:00 PM/ESPN
  • September 25 vs. Kentucky
  • October 2 vs. Troy
  • October 9 at Tennessee
  • October 16 vs. Vanderbilt
  • October 23 at Texas A&M
  • November 6 vs. Florida
  • November 13 at Missouri
  • November 20 vs. Auburn
  • November 27 vs. Clemson

In short, this isn’t a good schedule for a rebuilding team. After opening with a layup against Eastern Illinois, we’ll get a pretty good idea of where the Gamecocks’ floor is when they travel to East Carolina in Week 2 — East Carolina’s bad, but then South Carolina probably isn’t great either. After an extremely likely loss at Georgia, South Carolina gets a four-game stretch of winnable games — but none of them are gimmes.

That will effectively determine the season, because the final five games — at Texas A&M, Florida, at Missouri, Auburn, and Clemson — are brutal. You can squint and see a pathway to 6-6; you can also easily see 2-10 if things aren’t clicking. The over/under is 3.5 wins and... I honestly am taking the under there.

Recent series vs. Vanderbilt

Since 2008, Vanderbilt is 5-7 against Tennessee, 4-8 against Kentucky, 2-9 against Georgia, 1-11 against Florida... and 0-12 against South Carolina. Vanderbilt’s 12-game losing streak has been a combination of bad luck (the Franklin years overlapped with three consecutive 11-2 Gamecock teams) and some really bad performances (Vanderbilt’s last three games against South Carolina have been decided by an average of 24.7 points.)

Vanderbilt had a shot in both 2015 and 2016; the former, a week after Steve Spurrier stepped down and with South Carolina on its way to a 3-9 season, saw Johnny McCrary permanently lose the starting job with a three-interception performance in a 19-10 loss, while the latter, in the season opener, saw Vanderbilt inexplicably put in backup QB Wade Freebeck with a 10-0 first-half lead and lose on a 55-yard field goal in the final minute.

Outlook

If not for the fact that Vanderbilt hasn’t beaten South Carolina since I was a law student at Vanderbilt (and I’m 37), and that the game is in Columbia, I would unequivocally say that South Carolina is Vanderbilt’s best shot at a win this year.

Because if you haven’t caught on to the tone of this post, I think South Carolina is going to be bad in 2021. The offense may or may not be able to throw the ball (though the run game admittedly should be fine), and the Gamecocks also have to replace a lot of pieces off a pretty bad defense — and those were actually some of the better pieces on the defensive side of the ball. And I frankly hate the Beamer hire: back in December, I did a rundown on the backgrounds of SEC head coaching hires over the last couple of decades. Among the things we learned from that: only three coaches have been hired to coach an SEC school with no experience as either an FBS head coach or a coordinator, and those were Hal Mumme (who’d at least been a head coach at lower levels), Ed Orgeron (for his disastrous Ole Miss tenure), and Robbie Caldwell (turkey inseminator and career offensive line coach.) On paper, at least, it’s easily the worst of the four SEC head coaching hires this offseason. I’m pretty meh about Josh Heupel at Tennessee and Bryan Harsin at Auburn, but it’s easy to see how those hires could work out and... I just don’t see it here. “But Dabo!” Yes, and name the other example of a career position coach working out as a head coach — I guess you could argue Ed Orgeron at LSU, in 2019 at least, but that one’s not looking so hot in 2021.

Then again, given the roster situation, South Carolina was probably going to struggle either way in 2021. I like some of the pieces here, particularly on the defensive line, but if we assume Vanderbilt is a clear pick for seventh in the SEC East, South Carolina is an equally clear pick for sixth. If I’m not being a homer, I think they’re probably better than us — but they’re also clearly worse than the triumvirate of Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee.