Head Coach: Will Muschamp (7-6, 50-38 overall)
2018 Record: 7-6
Returning Starters: 11 (5 offense, 6 defense)
It’s pretty fair to say that the Gamecocks have a been a thorn in the Vols’ side over the past few seasons. They cost Tennessee a trip to the Sugar Bowl in 2016 and came back to win a 27-24 nail-biter in Williams-Brice Stadium last year, which denied the Vols a bowl appearance in Jeremy Pruitt’s first year as head coach.
But things should be different in 2019. Not only does Pruitt and co. have another year to implement their system, but the Gamecocks have to travel to Neyland Stadium, where they are 3-7 over their last 10 games.
The Vols are also in the midst of a three-game losing streak to their fellow SEC East foe. Can 2019 be the year where they turn things around?
Coaching: If you’re a fan of the Tennessee Volunteers, then you know all about Will Muschamp.
Even though he’s had moderate success as a head coach, it’s been a different story whenever he plays the Vols. Muschamp currently holds a 6-0 record against the Big Orange. For some reason, Tennessee craps the bed every time he comes around.
Muschamp began his rise under Nick Saban when they coached at LSU in the early 2000s. He would eventually become the head coach at the University of Florida after successful stints at Auburn and Texas. His time at Florida was highlighted by an 11-2 season in 2012, but the wheels so came off and he was back at Auburn as defensive coordinator.
South Carolina came calling at the end of the 2015 season and Muschamp couldn’t resist. His 22 wins are the most by any coach in their first three years at the program and is the only coach to reach a bowl game in the same amount of time.
Bryan McClendon enters his second year as South Carolina’s offensive coordinator. The offense averaged over 30 points a game in 2018 and recorded five games of 500 yards or more, which is a school record.
Travaris Robinson, one of Muschamp’s first hires at USCe, enters his fourth year as defensive coordinator. His units have been known for creating turnovers, evidenced by top-10 national rankings in 2016 and 2017.
South Carolina fielded one of the top special teams units in 2018 and the man responsible for that was Coleman Hutzler, another assistant that has been with Muschamp since he first arrived. Hutzler was responsible for helping Jospeh Charlton set a school record with a 44.8 yards per punt average and he also helped placekicker Parker White increase his field goal percentage from 56% to over 81%.
Hutzler also coaches linebackers, proving himself to be a two-way threat and valuable member of the staff.
Offense: Jake Bentley is back at quarterback and has a chance to become the sixth quarterback in school history with 20 or more wins in 2019. Backups Dakereon Joyner and Ryan Hilinski will battle it out for No. 2 spot and it figures to be a very close one, indeed.
South Carolina returns all three running backs from last season, including Rico Dowdle, who led the way with over 600 yards on the ground. An injury has kept Dowdle from playing this offseason and Muschamp had A.J. Turner and Mon Denson listed as the first two running backs on the depth chart, so it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out as the season draws near.
Even though Deebo Samuel is gone, there is no question who the top receivers are on this team. Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith combined for 100 receptions, 1,519 yards, and 11 touchdowns in 2018, accounting for most of the team’s production in the passing game.
The third wideout spot is still up in the air thanks to injury issues, but keep an eye on Keveon Mullins, who may be able to take advantage and snag some playing time.
Kyle Markway and Kiel Pollard return at tight end, which is no surprise considering how much experience they have in the offense.
When it comes to the offensive line, the only question mark heading into the 2019 season is who will play center? There are three potential candidates in Hank Manos, Eric Douglas, and former walk-on Chandler Ferrel. This will be intriguing to watch as the summer rolls on, considering how important the position is when it comes to organizing the offense.
Defense: D.J. Wonnum, arguably the best defensive player on the team, is back on the defensive line and could have an All-SEC type season. He’s surrounded by players with plenty of experience in Keir Thomas, Brad Johnson, Kingsley Enagbare, and others - so the pieces are in the right place for a breakout season.
T.J. Brunson will lead the linebacker corps despite sitting out the spring game with an injury, but there is uncertainty behind him. Sherrod Greene had a lackluster 2018 season and Daniel Fennell is still recovering from ACL surgery, so it’s unclear if those two will have any impact in 2019. Keep an eye on Ernest Jones and Derek Boykins, who received playing time during the spring thanks to the injuries suffered by Brunson and Fennell.
Jaycee Horn - a former Vol commit - has become quite the standout cornerback under Muschamp and his teammate, Israel Mukuamu, is just as good. But just like the linebackers, there isn’t much depth behind these two. An injury to either one could spell disaster for the corner position.
The safety position is pretty much up for grabs, but it’s not like there is a bunch of scrubs fighting to get on the field. R.J. Roderick, J.T. Ibe, Jamyest Williams, and freshman Jammie Robinson are a few names to pay attention to during the season.
Special Teams: Gone is Samuel, who was one of the best punt returners in the SEC. However, White and Charlton return as placekicker and punter. It shouldn’t be too hard for Hutzler to find a replacement for Samuel and keep the train rolling.