Can South Carolina challenge Georgia in the SEC East? Why not?

COLUMBIA, S.C.—The mood surrounding the South Carolina football program this Spring was overwhelmingly positive. And let’s be clear on this: The upbeat attitude I found wasn’t just a feeling. It was backed up by tangible, brick-and-mortar things that give the Gamecocks and their fans every reason to believe that the trajectory of the football program, in its third season under Will Muschamp, is headed upward. Specifically:

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**--Late this Fall South Carolina will put the finishing touches on a $50 million football operations center that will be a good as any the Southeastern Conference. For the longest time South Carolina’s football facilities have been scattered over several different areas on the campus. Now they will be under one roof and attached to the Jerri and Steve Spurrier indoor practice facility, which represents another $14.3 million commitment.

Here is what the operations center will look like upon completion.

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When the new operations center is complete, the facilities at South Carolina related to football will have received upgrades in excess of $100 million since Muschamp became head coach.

**--The new dormitory for students and student-athletes at 650 Lincoln in Columbia is the most luxurious of its kind in the country.

“These kinds of facilities are not luxuries. They give our student-athlete and our coaches the best chance to succeed,” said South Carolina athletics director Ray Tanner as we looked at the new operations center under construction.

**--Facilities like these play a big role in the recruiting process. According to 247 Sports, South Carolina landed the No. 19 recruiting class (No. 7 in the SEC) in the nation in 2018. High-level recruits have options and facilities play a big part in defining the school’s commitment to football.

“It’s critical,” Muschamp said of the need for such buildings. “The reality is that when you bring a recruit to campus he wants to know much you are going to be committed to help him succeed. The commitment we’ve gotten from Coach Tanner and our university has been incredible.”

**--On the field there is reason for optimism because the Gamecocks return 14 starters (8 offense, 6 defense) from a team that went 9-4, rallied from a 19-3 deficit to beat Michigan 26-19 in the Outback Bowl, and could have easily won a couple more. The only teams to beat South Carolina by more than 10 points were Georgia (24-10) and Clemson (34-10), which both reached the College Football Playoffs.

**--South Carolina has a proven returning quarterback in junior Jake Bentley. The Gamecocks return 100 percent of their passing yards, 98 percent of their rushing yards, and 80 percent of their receiving yards. And that doesn’t count the return of wide receiver Deebo Samuel, who was playing as well as any receiver in the country when he suffered a broken leg in the third game of the season. He is expected to be at full speed come Fall practice.

“Deebo is a special player and we’re really glad to have him back,” said Muschamp of Samuel, who did not play in the Spring Game. “And it is our job as coaches to take advantage of what he can do.”

**--To that end Muschamp made the most radical change in his time in Columbia. He fired offensive coordinator Kurt Roper and elevated co-offensive coordinator/receivers coach Bryan McClendon. He also brought in veteran offensive coach Dan Werner to handle the quarterbacks. Together McClendon and Werner installed an up-tempo offense that had fans at the Garnet and Black Spring game buzzing.

It was a most un-Muschamp-like thing for the old-school former defensive coordinator to do, but he’s doing it for a totally logical reason.

“It keeps the defense off balance and every now and then you can catch them in a bad situation,” said Muschamp as we sat in his office. “We have the personnel to run it and our guys like it. So we’re going to do it.”

And guess what? The quarterback REALLY likes it.

“You just go play. There’s no thinking involved,” Bentley told reporters after the spring game. “You know what your assignments are and you roll with it. The defense can’t get some elaborate blitz package together so it simplifies what they can do.”

And there is this:

“Jake plays better when he goes faster,” said Muschamp.

The defense, which loses all-time tackler Skai Moore, has gotten better for playing against tempo in practice, said Muschamp.

So what do all of these positive signs mean? Does it mean that with Florida and Tennessee rebuilding under new coaches, South Carolina is the most likely challenger to Georgia in the SEC East?

Why not?

With the rebuilding that Georgia, the defending SEC champs CFP championship runners-up, must do on defense, it would be best to play the Bulldogs early. Georgia comes to Williams-Brice Stadium on Sept. 8.

Get past the Bulldogs and the rest of the SEC schedule looks manageable. Remember that Georgia plays Auburn at home and LSU on the road from the SEC West. South Carolina has Texas A&M (at home) and Ole Miss (on the road) from the West.

So if the South Carolina football program was a stock, I would tell you buy. How high can it go this year?

I don’t know. Ask me again at the close of business on Sept. 8.