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Jake Bentley should claim his spot among the SEC’s elite in 2018

Bentley has been ahead of schedule since he arrived at South Carolina. Now it is about him finally becoming great for the Gamecocks instead of just being good.

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Michigan vs South Carolina Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

There is no question about it: The 2018 quarterback talent in the SEC is plentiful.

The conference has Missouri’s Drew Lock, Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham, Georgia’s Jake Fromm and Justin Fields, and Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts. Yet, there is one signal caller that is on the verge of being great — South Carolina’s Jake Bentley.

Ever since Bentley arrived on campus, he has been ahead of schedule. He left high school a year to play for the Gamecocks and was immediately thrown into the fire as a true freshman, starting seven games in 2016. Bentley went 4-3 as a starter that season and gained valuable experience playing against some of the nation’s top defenses, including Florida and Clemson.

Then last year, as a full time starter, Bentley led South Carolina to a nine win season. With that progression, he should be in line for a big season in 2018. Fair or unfair, expectations are higher for Bentley. He’s the quarterback, the most scrutinized position in football.

NCAA Football: Clemson at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

A rising junior, Bentley is 13-7 as the Gamecocks’ starter. Since he took over midway through the 2016 season, he has completed 63.4 percent of his passes for 4,214 yards, 27 touchdowns and 16 interceptions.

“If a lot of dots get connected, he should be in for a very good season,” CBS Sports analyst Barrett Sallee said on his podcast.

Bentley may finally string everything together thanks to South Carolina’s new offensive coordinator, Bryan McClendon.

The 6-foot-4 quarterback’s first 20 starts came under OC and QB coach Kurt Roper, who was fired following the 2017 season. There’s been talk that Bentley prefers the new up-tempo approach from McClendon — who called plays during the Outback Bowl. That day, Bentley completed 59.4-percent of his passes for 239 yards, two touchdowns and one interception.

Yet the thing that separates Bentley from just being good to being great is his inability to play well in big games.

Last year against Florida, Georgia, and Clemson, Bentley tossed seven of his 12 interceptions. He only threw three touchdowns in those games. Not only that, in his career against those three teams, he’s has thrown just two touchdowns to nine interceptions compared to 25 and seven against other squads.

A big time quarterback has to win big time games. So far during his career, “big” wins have eluded Bentley.

Although he struggled at times, it was not entirely his fault. At times, he fought to pick up the slack within an unstable offense led by an inconsistent play-caller without his primary playmaker. And sometimes, Jake threw balls in windows that did not exist. Yet it was out of frustration, not an inability to see the field.

With three sturdy running backs and the best wide receiver group in the SEC — including a returning Deebo Samuel — Bentley has the tools and the talent to further raise the Gamecocks.

With the way the game is going these days, tempo is going to be beneficial for Bentley and the Gamecocks. And with what head coach Will Muschamp hopes to be a consistent play-caller, he should be in line for a big season. Maybe even creating some Heisman noise if he reaches his potential. So says Sallee on his podcast:

“I feel like he deserves some do,” Sallee said. “Did I expect him to be listened in Heisman odds? No, because a lot of this is hype.

“Jake Bentley, when you look at him and say, ‘OK, he is not the most buzz worthy guy in college football.’ Quite honestly, his sophomore season was less than I expected. He was thursted into his freshman year — burned his redshirt. He threw nine touchdown, four interceptions and completed almost 66-percent of his passes. It dropped to 62-percent his first year as a starter and he threw 18 touchdowns and 12 picks.

“Jake Bentley at least should be, I think, mentioned on the (edge) of the Heisman discussion.”