After a couple of easy tuneups to start the 2017 campaign, it all gets real for Kentucky Wildcats football. The Wildcats have defeated South Carolina three straight times, but this will be a tough road test against a Gamecocks team that improved greatly over the second half of the season.
The Gamecocks started off 2-4 in Will Muschamp's' first season at the helm but rebounded to make the Birmingham Bowl. Even though they lost to the South Florida Bulls to finish 6-7, there is optimism for this season in Columbia.
The reason for optimism is the Gamecocks offense. I know it sounds weird to say this for an offense that was moribund for most of the season, but freshman Jake Bentley emerged and should continue to develop.
Bentley, as a true freshman, completed 65.8% of his passes for 1420 yards and 9 touchdowns versus 4 picks over the past seven games. A star emerged during the bowl game as Bentley passed for 390 yards and 3 touchdowns. If Bentley continues to develop, watch out. This could be a very dangerous passing attack as all of Bentley's receiving weapons are back. Deebo Samuel, TE Hayden Hurst, and Bryan Edwards all return and they combined for 151 catches, 1989 yards, and 6 touchdowns.
While the passing attack is set, there will be competition to see who the main running back will be. Sophomore Rico Dowdle appears to have the upper hand and had 764 yards on the ground with 6 TDs and averaged 5.7 yards a carry as a freshman. He will be pushed by North Carolina transfer Ty'Son Williams. AJ Turner, who rushed for 497 yards last year, will also get a shot.
Perhaps the main question on offense will be the offensive line. Simply put, the line was terrible last season, allowing 41 sacks and 3.68 yards per carry, both SEC worsts. LT Mason Zandi is gone, but the Gamecocks return four starters and while there will be some reshuffling, there is talent here and it could not be worse than last year. New line coach Eric Wolford has plenty of room for improvement.
The defense struggled last year, but the return of LB Skai Moore will help. Lineback was a thin area for the Gamecocks last year and depth continues to be a concern, but Moore and Bryson Allen-Williams make a solid pairing. There are just three returning scholarship players in the linebacking corps, so depth will be a major concern, even if Moore returns to his past form.
The Gamecocks have struggled to find a consistent pass rush since Jadeveeon Clowney. They had just 21 sacks last season and while the line feasted on the weaker teams. 12 of those sacks came in three games. Darius English and his nine sacks are departed, so there is plenty of pressure for someone to step up.
With DJ Smith and Chris Lammons returning, the secondary is in pretty good shape. However, more questions than answers remain for the Gamecock defense that lost five of their top nine tacklers. The last two games were a disaster for the defense as they gave up 102 points to Clemson and South Florida. The defense will be improved, but a pretty low bar has been set.
This will be a must-win game for both Kentucky and South Carolina if they are to improve and move up in the SEC East standings. This will be Kentucky's first real test of the year and the road environment at South Carolina will be rough. The Gamecocks could already be under fire when this game happens as they start their season against a pretty good North Carolina State team and a road game at Missouri.
I think the Gamecocks will be an improved team and could make a bowl again. However, I like that Kentucky is catching them fairly early in the season and the Wildcats have more talent and fewer questions than South Carolina. It won't come easy but look for Kentucky to start the season 3-0 with a hard fought 28-24 win.