Backing the Gamecocks

South Carolina has been issued a season win total of seven flat (-110 either way) by most books that have released those numbers already. The obvious play here is the 'over' and I'll be glad to explain why.

Loyal readers remember how hard I was pushing the 2017 South Carolina team last summer. I was extraordinarily bullish on Will Muschamp’s second team in Columbia to soar ‘over’ 5.5 wins as my favorite win total of the season.

From my Games Galore podcast, to radio spots in Omaha (Sharp & Benning on 1620 The Zone), Clemson (Qualk & Kelly on 105.5 The Roar), Memphis (Chris Vernon Show) and beyond, I was screaming from the rafters to anyone who would listen that this wager was going to be easy pickings.

As it turned out, the Gamecocks improved to 6-2 with a home win over Vanderbilt in late October. Although we couldn’t collect until their final regular season game concluded, we had a winning ticket in our pockets before the calendar even hit November.

South Carolina went 8-4 in the regular season and after rallying from a 19-3 second-half deficit to beat Michigan at the Outback Bowl, it finished with nine wins and loads of optimism going into the offseason.

Remember, star WR and special-teams playmaker Deebo Samuel broke his leg to end his season in the third quarter of a Week 3 home loss to Kentucky. Samuel had scored five touchdowns in wins over North Carolina State and Missouri to start the season. Then on the first play from scrimmage vs. UK, he took a quick slant and turned it into a long TD reception. In other words, Samuel was playing like a first-team All-American (at WR AND in the return game!) and USC only had his services for 2.5 of its 13 games.

Also, starting senior LB Bryson Allen-Williams suffered a season-ending injury in Week 3 vs. UK. He had 10 tackles, two sacks, one tackle for loss, one QB hurry, one pass broken up and one interception in three games. Allen-Williams was granted a redshirt and Samuel bypassed turning pro early to return for his senior campaign.

Muschamp, who is 15-11 in his first two seasons at USC after taking over following a dismal 3-9 year, brings back eight starters on offense and six on defense. Jake Bentley, the rising junior quarterback, has posted a 13-7 record in 20 career starts. He became the starter as a true freshman (when he still should’ve been a senior in high school) after the Gamecocks started 2016 by going 2-4 ahead of their open date.

Bentley guided that 2-4 squad to a 4-2 finish down the stretch of the regular season to get bowl eligible. USC lost an overtime thriller to South Florida in the postseason, but Bentley helped his team score 39 points against the Bulls.

Bentley threw for 2,794 yards last year despite Samuel’s prolonged absence. He loses first-round selection Hayden Hurst, the star tight end, but fellow true junior WR Bryan Edwards is off a breakout year. Edwards had 64 receptions for 793 yards and five TDs in 2017.

As a true freshman, WR Shi Smith had 29 catches for 409 yards and three TDs with ZERO drops. Another rising sophomore WR, OrTre Smith, hauled in 30 receptions for 326 yards and three TDs last season.

South Carolina has three veteran RBs with plenty of experience, including Rico Dowdle, A.J. Turner and Ty’Son Williams. This trio of juniors combined to catch 41 balls for 279 receiving yards and two TDs. Turner helped the Gamecocks go 4-0 in the games in which he was given 11 carries or more, rushing for 121 yards on 15 totes vs. Vandy and 136 yards on 22 carries against the Gators.

Turner ran for a team-best 531 yards and three TDs while averaging 5.4 yards per carry. Dowdle, who missed five games with a leg injury in ’17, rushed for 764 yards and six TDs with a 5.7 YPC average as a true freshman in ’16. Williams, a transfer from North Carolina, ran for 471 yards with a 5.0 YPC average in his first season with USC.

South Carolina returns three starters on the offensive line, including OG Zach Bailey, a preseason second-team All-SEC selection in Athlon’s magazine.

Before discussing the defensive personnel, let’s reiterate what a genius Muschamp has consistently proven to be during nearly two decades of directing SEC stop units. South Carolina finished fifth in the SEC in scoring defense last year, giving up only 20.7 points per game. The Gamecocks were +11 in turnover margin.

The 2018 secondary will be bolstered by a pair of grad transfers, Rice safety J.T. Ibe and Texas A&M cornerback Nick Harvey. Ibe had 121 tackles, five TFL’s, eight PBU and two forced fumbles in three seasons with the Owls. Harvey missed 2017 injured but had 66 tackles, 10 PBU, one interception and 1.5 TFL’s for the Aggies in ’16.

The defense will be led by a pair of juniors in LB T.J. Brunson and DE D.J. Wonnum. Brunson, an Athlon’s preseason second-team All-SEC pick, produced 88 tackles, two sacks, 2.5 TFL’s, two QB hurries and a 73-yard fumble return for a TD last season. Wonnum, a preseason third-team All-SEC selection, recorded 57 tackles, seven TFL’s, six sacks, five PBU, one blocked kick and a pair of QB hurries in ’17.

Muschamp inked eight four-star signees in his latest recruiting haul. Although it won’t impact this year’s USC squad, we’ll nonetheless note that he also garnered a verbal commitment from five-star DE Zacch Pickens in late May. Pickens is ranked the No. 1 player prep player in South Carolina for the 2019 class and is the nation’s No. 14 overall player per 247 Sports’ Composite rankings. The Gamecocks’ 2019 class is currently ranked fourth in the country by both and 247. They’re ranked No. 2 at and eighth at ESPN.

The most likely immediate contributors from the ’18 class as true freshmen include DB Jaycee Horn (the son of former New Orleans Saints legendary WR Joe Horn), WR Josh Vann, OT Dylan Wonnum and DT Rick Sandidge.

Now let’s break down the schedule. Remember, season win totals are based on the 12 regular-season games, as conference championship games and bowls do not count toward this bet. If a game is cancelled due to weather or other reasons, the wager becomes a push or no-action.

When I scan USC’s slate, I only see one game that’s almost certainly a loss – that being at Clemson in the regular-season finale. In the recent Games of the Year released at the South Point in Las Vegas, the Gamecocks were 20-point underdogs for their trip to Death Valley.

South Point also has USC as a 14-point home underdog to Georgia in Week 2. However, when I was interviewed for a story on a few weeks ago, I said that my line was UGA -4.5. I added that I felt the number would probably open at around seven so when it was -11 initially at South Point, I was wishing I was in line to make a bet at that moment.

But instead of dipping down into single digits, the line went up to 14. For more than a week now, I’ve been saying USC +14 vs. UGA is my favorite Game of the Year out there. In fact, I’m calling for the outright upset.

For the sake of this conversation, however, we’ll call the crucial SEC East showdown a loss for South Carolina. We’ll call for victories in September home games vs. Coastal Carolina and Marshall. This will have the Gamecocks with a 2-1 record going into back-to-back SEC games at Vanderbilt and at Kentucky.

Muschamp owns a 5-1 career record against the Commodores, taking the only loss when he was at Florida facing Vandy with a banged-up third-string QB (Tyler Murphy) and nearly a dozen starters out with injuries. The game in Lexington is a revenge spot after UK went into Williams-Brice Stadium and won by a 23-13 count last year.

I think USC sweeps these two games to improve to 4-1, but I can understand if others want to call for a split with these two road assignments. Next, Muschamp’s bunch plays three straight home games and gets two weeks to prep for Tennessee. (More on UT later this summer but let’s be clear right away here: The Vols are going to be HORRIBLE in ’18!!!)

The first two home games of this stretch are vs. Missouri and vs. Texas A&M. I believe USC will be favored by 3-7 points in these spots. Certainly, Missouri’s Drew Lock has an offense that can put up points galore on any defense, but let’s not forget that USC thumped the Tigers by a 31-13 count as a short road underdog last year.

In its ‘17 trip to College Station, South Carolina allowed a 17-10 lead late in the third quarter to get away in a 24-17 setback. If for the sake of this convo we’re going to call at Vandy and at UK a split, then we’re going to call this a 3-0 sweep at home. Therefore, we’re 6-2 heading into November.

Three of the final four games are on the road: at Ole Miss, at Florida, vs. Chattanooga and at Clemson. With the aforementioned ‘L’ against the Tigers, we’re at 6-3 needing one win for a push and two for a winner out of the three other November contests. Let’s call it 7-3 with a win over Chattanooga to give us a push.

Ole Miss still has a lot of top-tier talent on offense, especially WR A.J. Brown and OT Greg Little, both of whom are in Mel Kiper’s Top 6 of his first Big Board for the 2019 NFL Draft. With that said, the Rebels are going to be abysmal on the defensive side of the ball. As for UF, it all depends on the QB and the only signal caller on the roster who has ever taken a collegiate snap is Feleipe Franks, who I’ve been on the record (for a long time now) touting as a great talent but one that’s never going to develop into an adequate SEC QB due to his lack of instincts, awareness and decision-making.

I think USC wins at Ole Miss, although it’s far from a layup. The game at UF will depend on what sort of QB play the Gators are getting, which, if the last eight seasons are even the slightest bit of an indicator, won’t be great. Even if we call these two road games a split, we have South Carolina at 8-4 and we’re cashing in on the Gamecocks’ win total for a second straight year.

But to be clear, I think USC is poised to go 9-3. If the Gamecocks can pull the Week 2 stunner over Muschamp’s alma mater that I believe is a strong possibility, then 10-2 and an SEC East title might happen. Whatever the case, my minority call that Muschamp was an outstanding hire for South Carolina has proven true and he has the program rapidly rising.

Don’t waste your time on this one. Get your ass to the counter and make this bet pronto!

Follow Brian Edwards' sports gambling opinions on Twitter at @vegasbedwards.