As the offseason approaches, we’ll begin looking at the key questions facing each team in the league. We kick off Tuesday's slate with South Carolina.
1. What’s next for quarterback Jake Bentley?
The decision to turn the offense over to Bentley midway through the season changed everything for South Carolina. The Gamecocks won three straight and four of the last six to become bowl-eligible. And in the bowl game, he threw for 390 yards and three touchdowns, leading his team on a dramatic second-half comeback, though they fell just short in overtime. He finished with 1,420 yards passing, completed 66 percent of his passes, and threw nine touchdown passes and just four interceptions. Not bad for a guy who was supposed to be a senior in high school. But what will Bentley do for an encore? He’s now had a taste of college football and life in the SEC, and with a full offseason in front of him, he should only get better as a sophomore. It also helps that South Carolina will return 10 of 11 starters on the offensive side of the ball.
2. Is Skai Moore on track to return?
Remember Moore, the SEC’s fourth-leading tackler two years ago? He missed the entire 2016 season after having surgery to repair a herniated disc in his neck, but according to head coach Will Muschamp, he’s on track to rejoin the team in January and should be ready for the start of the 2017 season. Moore led South Carolina in tackles his first three seasons on campus and earned second-team All-SEC honors in 2015 when he finished with 111 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, four interceptions and three forced fumbles. It’s still unclear whether he’ll return to the player he was before the surgery, but teammates were raving about his progress and his work ethic in the weight room during the bowl prep last month. Regardless, Moore will play a pivotal role for a defense that loses three of its top five tacklers from this past season.
3. Can the Gamecocks avoid a sophomore slump?
Let’s be honest. South Carolina exceeded expectations in Muschamp’s first season as head coach. Not even fans thought this team was going to make a bowl game, especially after a 2-4 start that included losses to Mississippi State and Kentucky. But the Gamecocks didn’t quit. They fought and clawed their way to six wins, and now the bar has been raised for 2017. But let’s not forget that more than half of the players who made up team’s 113-man bowl roster were freshmen (52) or sophomores (24). The Gamecocks started seven true freshmen in the bowl game. The key for Muschamp heading into Year 2 will be to avoid any kind of sophomore slump and continue to keep this team moving in the right direction. He expects to compete, if not win the division every year. He can’t afford to let South Carolina take a step backward after such an encouraging debut.