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2016 SEC college football season preview: South Carolina Gamecocks

After replacing HBC Steve Spurrier with Florida retread Will Muschamp, South Carolina has a ton of questions to answer...

Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Record Last Year: 3-9 (1-7 SEC)

Key Returnees: QB/WR Lorenzo Nunez, RB David Williams, RB AJ Turner, WR Deebo Samuel, C Alan Knott, LT Mason Zandi, DE Marquavius Lewis, BUCK Darius English, DT Dante Sawyer, WLB TJ Holloman, MLB Jonathan Wilson, SLB Bryson Allen-Williams, S Jordan Diggs, CB Rico McWilliams, CB Chris Lammons

Key Departures: RB Brandon Wilds, WR Pharoh Cooper, LT Brandon Shell, LB Skai Moore (injured), S Isaiah Johnson, S T.J. Gurley

Key Arrivals: HC Will Muschamp & staff, QB Brandon McIlwain, WR Bryan Edwards, TE Kiel Pollard, DE Keir Thomas, LB TJ Brunson, CB Jamarcus King (JUCO), CB Chris Smith

What Happened Last Year

South Carolina's season peaked in Week 1 in 2015, only nobody knew what an accomplishment beating North Carolina (11-3, ACC Coastal Division champions) was at the time. So it goes, sometimes.

After that quick start, the Gamecocks' season went downhill quickly after that fast start, with its only victories the rest of the season coming at home against 0-12 Central Florida and 4-8 Vanderbilt. Longtime coach Steve Spurrier announced his resignation October 12 after a loss to LSU (a USC home game played in Baton Rouge because of devastating flooding in Columbia), and without him South Carolina's season reached its nadir with a home loss to The Citadel, an FCS school.

The only thing Gamecock fans had to hold onto by the end of the year was archrival Clemson not winning the national championship. Fortunately, Alabama was able to save Columbia east from the worst offseason imaginable.

3 Key Players

QB Brandon McIlwain

McIlwain could have gone as high as the first round in the MLB Draft as an outfielder this past June, but he instead chose to enroll early at South Carolina, where he'll play both football and baseball. A four-star dual threat quarterback out of Pennsylvania, McIlwain is already getting first team reps with the South Carolina offense, and this figures to be his team by the end of the season (and beyond) even if it's not his in Week 1. As a dual threat without a wide variety of weapons to get the ball to, McIlwain will have to be a playmaker with both his arm and his feet immediately for South Carolina to see much of an offensive improvement in 2016.

WLB TJ Holloman

South Carolina's defense was not pretty last season, and it doesn't help that its best player, linebacker Skai Moore, is out for the season with a neck injury. With Moore out, Holloman is the team's leading returning tackler, and he'll be moving over to Moore's weakside linebacker position. If there's a strength to the USC defense, it's at linebacker, but Holloman has big shoes to fill stepping in for a potential All-SEC player.

Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

WR Deebo Samuel

You could put any number of receivers in this spot. I mentioned USC's lack of weapons above when talking about McIlwain, so if Muschamp's goal is to avoid his young QB being pummeled on a weekly basis, the Gamecocks will need someone for him to get the ball to. Samuel is South Carolina's leading returning receiver, but with only 12 catches and 161 yards last year, they need the sophomore to show that he can serve as a reliable option for a rebuilding offense.

Best Case Scenario

7-5 (4-4 SEC): McIlwain looks like a young Deshaun Watson and South Carolina handles a road SEC schedule that's not particularly daunting 2016, taking three of four against Vandy, Mississippi State, Kentucky and Florida. The Cocks also take care of business in the nonconference portion of their schedule outside of the Clemson game, beat Missouri at home, and look like an SEC East contender heading into 2017.

Worst Case Scenario

2-10 (0-8 SEC): Muschamp & Co. are only able to defeat the two gimmes on their schedule, UMass and Western Carolina, McIlwain looks like a repeat of 2015 Lorenzo Nunez and Muschamp is unable to turn around a poor defense. Oh, by the way, Watson wins the Heisman as he leads Clemson to a national championship.

My Prediction

4-8 (1-7 SEC): This is a rebuilding year in Columbia, no doubt about it. McIlwain is an exciting prospect, but even highly ranked freshmen QBs tend to struggle, as USC fans surely saw last season. Even if McIlwain is able to stabilize the position, there are a number of question marks at the skill positions and across the offensive line, and it's hard to see this defense doing quite enough to keep the Gamecocks in most games. There are talented pieces on this roster that can help you envision South Carolina back in SEC contention at some point, but it's still a couple years away.