South Carolina hoping last season’s hot finish carries into 2023

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Georgia and Tennessee are the presumed top two in the SEC East. If one is seeking the proverbial dark horse, a team that could fight its way into the conversation or at least heavily influence the division’s winner, South Carolina is the clearest bet.

The Gamecocks closed last season on fire, walloping playoff-hopeful Tennessee 63-38 then defeating rival Clemson 31-30 on the road. South Carolina lost a 45-38 shootout to Notre Dame in the Gator Bowl, but the program looked rejuvenated.

“Those were two monumental wins for us,” coach Shane Beamer said. “But also we understand, we have got a lot of work to do, too. Yes, we had those two great wins, but we are also – that’s the same team that didn’t score an offensive touchdown the week before against Florida as well. We have got to be more consistent, starting with me, but certainly there’s a lot that you can take from those two games that will help us going forward.”

Outside Steve Spurrier’s tenure, South Carolina hasn’t done much winning. It’s not the easiest job for success, especially given the proximity to recruiting behemoths and sharing a state with Clemson. Since the SEC adopted its East-West division format in 1992, the Gamecocks have had only two nine-win seasons under a non-Spurrier coach.

The good news: Beamer has started his career with consecutive winning campaigns, the first time South Carolina has achieved such since 2013-14 with Spurrier. There’s optimism in Columbia that he’s building a program that will be competitive annually, though it lacks the roster talent of Tennessee and certainly Georgia.

“I feel he’s taken it to new heights,” senior defensive lineman Tonka Hemingway said of Beamer. “Playing for him is like you got – you do everything for him. You try to win. You hate making him feel down. Coach Beamer, you want to play your heart out for him, give him your all.”

One of Beamer’s key moves was acquiring transfer quarterback Spencer Rattler, once a star recruit whose Oklahoma career was mired in inconsistency. Rattler’s Gamecocks career started similarly last season. He threw five interceptions across the first three games, with South Carolina losing two of them.

In South Carolina’s first 10 games, Rattler threw for more than 230 yards once: in a 44-30 loss to Arkansas. He played respectably during the Gamecocks’ midseason four-game win streak, but he wasn’t showing the dynamic style that made him such a coveted talent years ago.

It changed later in the season when Rattler became the player he was envisioned to be. After a horrific 38-6 loss to Florida, Rattler completed 50 of 76 throws for 798 yards with eight touchdowns against two interceptions in the upsets over the Volunteers and Tigers. He was 29-of-46 passing for 246 yards, two touchdowns and an interception in the bowl game.

“A lot of people think, ‘You must’ve just changed overnight,’” Rattler said. “No. We changed up some things with the offense that needed to be changed, and that was the product of it. The last couple weeks we did that and had a lot of success.”

There was an argument for Rattler to enter the NFL draft, taking advantage of his hot finish after years of middling production. He ultimately returned to school, with top receiver Antwane “Juice” Wells Jr., feeling they and the Gamecocks had more to tell.

“There were more pros coming back, obviously,” Rattler said. “I graduate in December, so I’ll get my degree. That’s something that means a lot to me and my family. That was one. And I feel like we left a little on the table the year before. So I have a lot more to prove. I think that’s why me and Juice came back. We felt like we have something to prove, and that’s what we’re trying to do this year as a group.”

Rattler will work under new offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains, a long-time NFL assistant whom Beamer hired after Mark Satterfield left to work for Matt Rhule at Nebraska. It’s unclear what the offense will look like – Rattler didn’t want to give any hints but said he’s “loving it” – but an NFL mind should surely help the quarterback prepare for the next level.

It’s paramount for the Gamecocks’ offense to carry much of the weight. The defense has some experience, but it doesn’t come close to the talent level of quality SEC units, and there isn’t reason to believe significant improvement is on the horizon.

The Gamecocks repeatedly were gashed on the ground last season, ranking 117th in rush defense (198 yards per game). Their 20 sacks were tied for 110th in the country. Their third-down defense likewise was putrid (.434, 114th).

Both units will be challenged early. South Carolina opens against North Carolina, headlined by top NFL quarterback prospect Drake Maye, and plays road games at Georgia and Tennessee before October. Beamer will know a lot about his team before the season’s midway point.