COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — South Carolina's Will Muschamp believes he's got the strongest, deepest and most talented team in his four seasons as the Gamecocks' coach.
And he can't wait to see if he's right.
Muschamp took over a three-win team after the 2015 and has not been much of a factor in the Southeastern Conference Eastern Division since. But Muschamp said South Carolina has improved its competitive depth and leadership entering this year, two essentials that are part of all winning programs.
The coach said there are more skilled players at all positions. Seniors like linebacker T.J. Brunson, quarterback Jake Bentley and defensive end D.J. Wonnum are no longer wide-eyed youngsters looking for leadership. Muschamp said they've taken the lead in offseason drills, weight-room sessions and film study.
"That's what you've got to have to be successful," Muschamp said. "Those are two things we've vastly improved on."
The Gamecocks, 7-6 a year ago, had hopes of contending last season until inconsistencies on both sides of the ball cost them. They struggled in the first half of games against Kentucky and Texas A&M before finding their footing too late to prevent losses. Things started to click the second half of the season — South Carolina scored 27 or more points in its final six regular-season games — until the offense went scoreless its final six quarters, including a demoralizing, 28-0 loss to Virginia in the Belk Bowl.
"It wasn't how we wanted things to end," said Bentley, who has started 32 of the past 33 games. "We've learned a lot from that."
Bentley, who became the starter as a freshman in 2016, will have a strong corps of receivers, led by senior Bryan Edwards, who was second on the team a year ago with 55 catches and seven touchdowns.
Tailback Rico Dowdle leads a running game featuring three seniors and Clemson graduate transfer Tavien Feaster, who switched sides after three years and two national championship rings with the Tigers.
The defense expects a healthy front line led by Wonnum and Javon Kinlaw, who led the Gamecocks with 4.5 sacks last season.
Here are some things to watch at South Carolina:
South Carolina's biggest loss was in receiver-returner playmaker Deebo Samuel, who led the team with 11 touchdowns in 2018. He was Bentley's go-to wideout and safety net as the defense closed in the past three seasons. It will be up to little-used receivers Josh Van and Randrecous Davis to handle the slot area that Samuel played so well the last three years.
Muschamp added former Georgia star tailback Thomas Brown as his running backs coach this offseason. The Gamecocks also picked up Feaster, the former Clemson runner, for his final college season. Feaster is a former five-star recruit who gained 1,330 yards in three seasons with the Tigers. Dowdle, who led the Gamecocks with 654 yards, said Brown has energized the runners since his arrival as the group tries to finish higher than 12th in the SEC as they did last fall. "Competition is always good," Dowdle said. "It makes everyone better."
South Carolina doesn't get much help from its schedule, facing at least three potential top-five teams in Alabama, Clemson and Georgia. At least the games with national championship winners Crimson Tide and Tigers are at Williams-Brice Stadium. The last time Alabama played here in 2010, the Gamecocks surprised the No. 1-ranked defending national champs 35-21. But that team featured future Super Bowl champions in cornerback Stephon Gilmore and receiver Alshon Jeffery. South Carolina has not beaten Georgia since 2014 and Clemson since 2013.
The Gamecocks feature high-profile freshmen on both sides of the ball. Perhaps their top recruit this past February was quarterback Ryan Hilinski, whose older brother in Washington State quarterback Tyler killed himself last year. The Gamecocks secondary this season also includes Shilo Sanders, the son of NFL Hall of Famer Deion Sanders.