The 2016 South Carolina football team was a flawed mess that was very fortunate to even get to a bowl game last year. They slugged out some ugly (and lucky) wins over Vanderbilt (13-10), ECU (20-15), and UMass (34-28) that helped float the team to the six win threshold and gain bowl eligibility. Actually, if not for those first three wins, that 2016 South Carolina team could have started 0-7, which might have people feeling quite differently about the early stages of the Will Muschamp era in Columbia.
South Carolina has a chance to take a huge step forward in 2017, with the majority of that opportunity coming from what should be an improved offensive unit. Virtually every offensive person of note returns from last year’s pretty terrible unit. So the real question is: can experience be turned into tangible results?
Calling the shots from the booth (from the sidelines?) is Offensive Coordinator Kurt Roper. If that name sounds familiar, it’s because he spent six seasons at Duke as the OC under David Cutcliffe before leaving to try and (unsuccessfully) save Will Muschamp’s job at Florida. After the failed effort in Gainesville, Roper was an offensive assistant in the NFL (why, Kurt?) in 2015 before Muschamp again tapped him as his OC at South Carolina.
Let’s take a look at how Roper-led offenses have fared over the years based on S&P+ Offensive Ratings (note: rows with an asterisk represent the offenses in the years before or after Roper):
|S&P+ Off. Rating
|S&P+ Off. Rating
Roper had himself a nice little run at Duke, showing improvement every year that he was there. Of course, it’s hard to truly know if that was because of him or if the bulk of credit is due to Cutcliffe; however, the Duke offense did take a nose dive dropping to rankings of 76, 89, and 77 in the three years since his departure.
What can be seen is that he took an offensive unit at Florida and turned it from ‘horrible’ to ‘not good’ in his lone season. That’s not meant as an insult to him; one-year offensive turnarounds in football are not very common. However, the South Carolina offense was significantly better... err... not-as-bad the year before Roper took over. That could, of course, be chalked up to having such a young and inexperienced unit to work with. It’s obvious that Muschamp and Roper decided to play the young guys last year, choosing to take short-term lumps to build for the future. Either way, that 2016 South Carolina Offense was horrific. Paired with a defense that ranked just 50th in S&P+ Defensive Ratings last year (although it was a much improved defense - a topic to be touched on another time), again, it’s really a wonder that this team made a bowl game at all - although ranking 24th in turnover margin helps.
Returning from that 2016 team to lead the way is a talented core group of players: Sophomore QB Jake Bentley, Sophomore RB Rico Dowdle, Junior WR Deebo Samuel, Sophomore WR Bryan Edwards, and Junior TE Hayden Hurst. Here’s the real glimmer of hope for South Carolina fans (and the scary part for opposing fans): Bentley, Dowdle, and Samuel didn’t really hit their stride (or even start playing, in Bentley’s case) until Game 7. From then on, the team went 4-3, including six of the team’s seven best offensive outputs of the season from an Offensive Percentile Performance perspective (I’m not sure the offense even participated in the Clemson game).
Bentley was redshirting last year until after six games in when the coaching staff realized he was the best option, future be damned. (Side Note: Given that this move probably was the deciding factor in the team making a bowl game, this was the right call; the team gained the extra bowl game practices that help a young/rebuilding team down the line. The “loss” of six games/a fifth year from Bentley’s career was probably worth it.) Dowdle, a former recruiting target of NC State from Asheville, didn’t play until the fifth game of the year, and didn’t really start taking meaningful snaps until Bentley went under center. Samuel, after returning in Game 6 from an early season injury, went on to torch defenses over the last half of the season (with the exception of the beatdown the Gamecocks took from Clemson in which, as previously noted, the entire offense was shut down).
As Steven made mention to in a post earlier this week, South Carolina’s offensive line returns four of five starters and will feature all juniors and seniors, but it’s a group that was pretty awful at keeping the QB from getting his head pounded in last year. Experience should lead to some improvement, but how much is yet to be seen and difficult to anticipate. With inexperience at all the skill positions and a new offensive system being put in place last year, South Carolina ran a very simplified offense. While that makes identification and game planning easy for opposing defenses, that should also make life easier for the offensive line as there are fewer protections to have to worry about. The fact that the Gamecock offensive line struggled so mightily last year despite a simplified protection package should be of great concern for Roper and the coaching staff, and should be a solid area where the Wolfpack carry an advantage heading into the game. Then again, a simplified protection package is easily exploitable by defenses... at least defenses with greater talent than the players trying to stop them.
So what should be expected of the South Carolina offense in 2017? Well, that’s really the big question. The defense should hold its own, so the offense is holding the keys to the overall success of the season. Typical Roper offensive staples will remain: short high-percentage passes, a fairly typical/average rate of run-vs-pass, and a preference for a slower pace in an effort to gain preferable match-ups against the defense. What should change in 2017 with more experienced skill players and a veteran offensive line is an increase in the number of downfield shots taken in the passing game and an increase in the number of formations and plays shown.
The talent in the skill position is there, the experience on the front is there. Will all of this help the Gamecocks to take the next step in Muschamp’s rebuild? Time will tell... but hopefully not before Week 2.