By Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
South Carolina is a five-point underdog against NC State Saturday.
The majority of media pundits are also picking against the Gamecocks, some of them giving Will Muschamp's second team little chance at all. Some even think the Gamecocks will take a step backward this season.
They are all wrong.
It's understandable why NC State is favored in the season-opener. The Wolfpack was 7-6 last year and dominated Vanderbilt 41-17 in the Independence Bowl. They beat Notre Dame and had Clemson and Florida State on the ropes. They return 18 starters, 11 of them seniors.
The Gamecocks are coming off a 6-7 season in Muschamp's first season and lost their bowl game to South Florida. They return 16 starters but are still young, with 70 percent of the roster freshmen and sophomores.
The numbers favor NC State.
But the Gamecocks are being sorely underestimated and underrated.
This is not the same team that struggled for part of the season last year. It's not the same team that started 2-4 and not the same team that was dominated late in the season by Florida and Clemson.
This is a bigger, stronger, faster and more talented team. On offense, they are loaded at the skill positions and have experience up front. On defense, Skai Moore is back and has support from other key seniors.
NC State is highly regarded, with some believing the Pack can be one of the nation's biggest spoilers. But it is still a mid-pack ACC team, and an average ACC team shouldn't beat an improving SEC team.
Bentley was impressive in his seven-game debut as a freshman, capping the season with a magnificent performance in the Birmingham Bowl. By all accounts, he has grown by leaps and bounds during the offseason and is regarded as one of the best QBs in the SEC.
And he is surrounded by talent. NC State has a dangerous all-purpose star in Jaylen Samuels, whom Muschamp calls "a very effective playmaker." But South Carolina has it own dynamic playmaker in Deebo Samuel, the second-best all-purpose back in the SEC last year. Players like Samuel, RB Rico Dowdle and TE Hayden Hurst should scare NC State every bit as much as the Pack's D-Line concerns South Carolina.
The key to the game will be South Carolina's offensive line. It struggled at times last year, but is bigger, stronger and deeper this season and has been pushed hard by Muschamp and OL coach Eric Wolford.
Seniors Alan Knott and Cory Helms are as tough as they come and junior guard Donell Stanley has shined in training camp. Zach Bailey is a rising star at right tackle and Malik Young won a fierce battle with newcomer Dennis Daley to win the left-tackle spot.
This group has more experience than last year's unit and there is quality depth behind it. And perhaps more importantly, it is healthy. Knott and Helms played with injuries last season and Stanley was lost for the season in the first game.
The five big men know what they are facing and are ready for the challenge.
"I'm really looking forward to it," Young said. "They have a really good defensive line, four legit guys, maybe five, but I take every challenge as an opportunity. That is an opportunity for me to prove myself. … I feel pretty good about it. I feel like we'll play the way we are supposed to play."
The O-Line will rise to the occasion, giving Bentley and gang time and room to operate.
The defense is the biggest concern, and it will face a talented NC State offense.
But Muschamp and his staff have been impressed with the first-team defense. It too is bigger, faster and more physical, all traits Muschamp was looking for in training camp. It also is a ball-hawking defense, with turnovers a high priority, and turnovers could decide this game, just as it did two years ago in Charlotte against North Carolina.
Sparked by the return of Moore, an All-SEC linebacker, this defense is faster than the groups that struggled the past few seasons.
"We are much faster than we were a year ago," Muschamp said. "We’re faster at the linebacker position. … I think we’re faster in the secondary. … We needed to improve our speed, and I think we have."
That speed and an upgrade in overall talent will help South Carolina handle NC State's versatile attack.
More than anything, Muschamp and his team are hungry. Hungry to improve on last year's 6-7 record and hungry to prove they can win big games and compete against one of the toughest schedules in the country.
"I don’t know that we walked out of any practice or meeting and didn’t feel good about making some positive progress," Muschamp said. "… This has been a fun group to be around, the way they have gone about their business and practiced the right way and approached things the right way. It’s been fun."
The fun will begin Saturday with a season-opening win over NC State.