After a second consecutive SEC loss to begin the 2019 season, Kentucky will head on the road this weekend to face an opponent they have had a lot of success against. Mark Stoops has won five in a row against South Carolina and is 3-0 against Will Muschamp since he took over in Columbia. It will be a matchup of two teams who really need a win.
The Gamecocks are off to a 1-3 start with four game remaining against top-25 competition. Muschamp is starting to feel a little bit of heat despite a big contract, new football facility, and stadium renovations that are on the way. All offseason, South Carolina talked about this Kentucky game and they will be looking to get a big monkey off their back.
"It's inexcusable for any team in the SEC to lose 5 straight games to Kentucky."
— Paul Finebaum (@finebaum) August 7, 2019
Nuts and Bolts
After being a very mediocre program in the ACC and a doormat their first few years in the SEC, South Carolina took a swing on a pair of big name coaches. Lou Holtz took the job in 1999 and went from 0-11 to an Outback Bowl in just one season. The hall of famer brought respectability to the program so the next coach was able to drive South Carolina into another stratosphere.
Steve Spurrier took the 2004 season off after a failed experiment with the Washington Redskins before returning to college football. The Head Ball Coach spent 11 seasons in Columbia until it all came crashing down in 2015 after the home loss to Kentucky. However, Spurrier would take the program to unseen heights. The Gamecocks won the SEC East in 2010, finished in the top-10 three times, and went to the postseason nine times in a decade. He was the best coach in program history.
Following his departure, South Carolina would go winless in the SEC in 2015 before hiring Will Muschamp as their next football coach. Despite an underwhelming tenure at Florida, the former Saban and Mack Brown assistant landed the job thanks to big recruiting chops and popularity in coaching circles. The recruiting has paid off, but like at Florida, the wins haven’t met the fan base’s expectations.
Muschamp is 23-20 at South Carolina with a high-water mark on nine wins in 2017. However, the Gamecocks have lost six consecutive games to Power Five opponents in addition to losing their starting quarterback. Carolina faces the toughest schedule in college football this season and a 3-9 finish is very possible. This weekend’s contest certainly feels close to a must win for the program.
This will be the 31st meeting between the two universities with South Carolina owning a 17-12-1 series lead. Since joining the SEC, Carolina is 16-11 against UK and won 1o games in a row from 2000-2009. However, Kentucky is on a five-game run this decade in what is becoming a series of streaks.
Out in the desert, South Carolina is a 3-point favorite with a total of 51.5. That’s a projected final score of 27-24. Kentucky is 2-1 against the spread and 2-1 on the over while South Carolina is 2-1 against the spread with the over only hitting once. Mark Stoops has covered in every matchup against the Gamecocks.
Before last season, Muschamp promoted assistant Bryan McClendon to the play-calling role and the former Georgia wide receiver became one of the youngest coordinators in the SEC. Under McClendon’s guidance, South Carolina went to a hurry-up, no huddle offense and the Gamecocks ranked 11th in the FBS in adjusted pace per SP+. Despite rolling with the NASCAR offense, the results did not exactly pay off.
The Gamecocks ranked ninth in the league in scoring offense and tied sixth in yards per play. These were solid numbers, but not enough to carry South Carolina to better than a 7-6 record. However, expectations were high with many starters returning. That all changed when South Carolina lost Jake Bentley for the year in the season-opening loss to North Carolina.
Taking Bentley’s place is true freshman blue-chipper Ryan Hilinski. The South California native was a top-70 prospect in the class of 2019 and the quarterback of the future for the program. His first three starts have been filled with expected highs and lows.
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound pocket passer has a big league arm, but is not the most fleet of foot. He can be a statue in the pocket shown by the many hits he took last week. After lighting up a bad Charleston Southern team, the true freshman needed over 50 passes to throw for 300-plus yards against Alabama. A lot of that went out the window in his first road start.
Hilinski had two turnovers that resulted in defensive touchdowns and completed just 43 percent of his passes. Similar to Sawyer Smith, he is banged up (elbow, chest, ankle) and we could see Carolina try to protect their young quarterback on Saturday.
One way to do that would be establishing the ground game and that is something South Carolina has gotten away from in SEC play. After rushing for 135 yards against Alabama, Carolina only put up 16 yards on 24 carries against Mizzou on their way to a putrid offensive performance. Despite that, they have two good backs and one was a big time transfer.
Tavien Feaster was a top-30 recruit who went on to be a career reserve for Clemson. In three years, Feaster averaged six yards per carry off the bench and he has produced early for the Gamecocks. The 221-pound back is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and has recorded eight receptions in four games. He’s a good player, but he’s not Carolina’s best back.
Rico Dowdle leads team in rushing after averaging 6.5 yards per carry in the first four weeks. The senior put up 102 yards in the loss to Alabama, but has never faired well against Kentucky. In two career games, Dowdle is averaging just 3.2 yards per carry on 21 attempts.
The most dangerous player happens to be on the outside. Bryan Edwards has a very, very good chance to leave Columbia as the program leader in receptions, receiving yards, and receiving touchdowns. The 6-foot-3, 215-pound wideout with 41 career starts will be a handful for UK’s corners.
The former four-star prospect has 21 grabs, 311 yards, and four touchdowns this season. Shi Smith is second on the team with 16 grabs and he can be quite the deep threat, but is battling an undisclosed injury. Tight end Kyle Markway leads the SEC in tight end receptions and will be someone UK must be aware of.
Offensive line play has been an issue the entire Muschamp era and this season is no different. It took just one game for some shuffling along the line to occur with Donell Stanley switching from left guard to center. They are coming off consecutive games where they were truly beat at the point of attack. Carolina needs this unit to play better in a hurry.
When looking at the stats, it’s hard to judge South Carolina’s offense to this point. The win against Charleston Southern was a total mismatch and the Gamecocks lost Jake Bentley after just one game. Carolina went very pass heavy against both Alabama and Mizzou. The Gamecocks have been bad on third down, but expect some wildcat looks with dual-threat backup Dakereon Joyner.
It’s taken South Carolina some time to build up the defensive line and this year they finally have the size and depth to make a real impact. Through two games, the Gamecocks have made some plays upfront with senior Javon Kinlaw leading the way.
The former junior college prospect leads the SEC sacks and will be a force on the interior. Former UK commit Kobe Smith lines up next to Kinlaw inside and is playing very well in his senior season. Aaron Sterling is giving the Gamecocks good play at end and the Gamecocks are a legit two-deep at each spot. Five-star true freshman Zacch Pickens is a future star who has played very well in a reserve role.
At the second level, T.J. Brunson plays the Will backer spot and has started every game since 2017. The former three-star prospect will be all over the field. Inside at Mike, Ernest Jones leads the team in tackles and has been a pleasant surprise in his first year starting.
In the secondary, Jaycee Horn has been one of the SEC’s best corners early in the season and the former blue-chip recruit has four pass break-ups and two forced fumbles. Opposite of him is Israel Mukuamu who brings great size to the position (6-foot-4, 205 pounds). At safety, South Carolina lost Jamyest Williams to the transfer portal earlier this week, but R.J. Roderick beat him out for a starting spot earlier this season. True freshman Jammie Robinson starts for Carolina in nickel and picked the Gamecocks over Kentucky in the class of 2019.
South Carolina has given up a ton of big plays this season, but the bend-but-don’t-break unit has been very good in the red zone (9th nationally in red zone touchdown rate). The injury bug, however, has effected the team. Expected starter Keir Thomas has not played yet this season at defensive tackle and both safety J.T. Ibe and defensive end Aaron Sterling are banged up this week. Carolina’s depth could be tested on Saturday.
Special Teams Breakdown
The third phase has been very good to South Carolina this season and it starts with punter Joseph Charlton. The senior is averaging nearly 50 yards per punt and can flip field position from nearly anywhere on the field.
In the return game, Bryan Edwards is the primary punt returner and he can do some real damage if provided an opportunity.
At kicker, Parker White has a big leg but can be very inconsistent. On kickoffs, South Carolina has a touchback rate under 60 percent and have kicked two balls out of bounds. Return opportunities will be there.
Keys to Victory
- This certainly feels like a 50/50 game with both teams determined to get their ground attack going. In order to move the chains, the winner of the game will need to be efficient on third down. Kentucky’s offense must bounce back after a woeful performance and the worst third down defense in the SEC must make a big step forward against an offense that had seven three-and-outs against Mizzou.
- South Carolina has one of the worst big play defenses in the country while Kentucky ranks third in the SEC in offensive plays of 20-plus yards. The big plays will be there, but UK must finish drives. The game could be determined on what Kentucky does with their scoring opportunities.
- Ball security has been an issue for South Carolina while Kentucky has forced exactly eight takeaways in four games. If the Wildcats are able to get a couple turnovers they will have great chance at a road win.
The Hot Seat
Will Muschamp is off to a rough start and there are plenty of tickets available for an SEC Saturday Night showdown at Williams-Brice Stadium. A 3-9 season is very possible if the Gamecocks lose on Saturday and some fans are jumping ship. However, there are some specific reasons why Muschamp should return to Columbia for a fifth season.
South Carolina signed the head coach to a one-year contract extension after last season and would owe him $22 million if they fired him before the end of the season. That’s a lot. Athletic director Ray Tanner still appears to believe that he is the guy.
Ray Tanner on @1075thegame today: "I'm very fond of Will Muschamp… I'm very fond of his coaches… I believe in them now as much as I did when they came here… I take responsibility in any way anybody wants to dish it out." @abc_columbia
— Mike Gillespie (@MikeABCColumbia) September 25, 2019
There are some other things at play in addition to this monster contract. South Carolina just opened a $50 million dollar football facility in January and it has gotten rave reviews. Next season, Carolina will finish upgrades to Williams-Brice Stadium that costed $22.5 million. That’s a lot of money on top of what could be a huge buyout.
It’s pretty clear that South Carolina overreacted to a 9-win season in 2017 and went big on Will Muschamp. Not only in his contract, but with major program upgrades across the board. Unless the Gamecocks lose out, it’s very likely we’re all talking about Muschamp officially being on the hot seat in 2020.