Why South Carolina football isn't an SEC contender yet — and why Gamecocks have hope
Despite passing for 371 yards in his first SEC football game, South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler couldn't lead the Gamecocks to victory against Arkansas on Saturday.
The 44-30 loss was not the performance Shane Beamer hoped for in his second year at the helm of the program, and Rattler has not been the missing piece that fans hoped would unlock a winning team.
The biggest takeaway from the loss? South Carolina isn't an SEC contender, at least not yet. That doesn't mean there's no hope, though.
Here's where the Gamecocks go from here:
GAMECOCKS LOSE TO RAZORBACKS:Second-half turnovers doom South Carolina football in loss to Arkansas
REPORT CARD VS. ARKANSAS:South Carolina football grades vs. Arkansas: Here's what doomed Gamecocks in SEC opener
It's a classic adage that Arkansas coach Sam Pittman repeated after beating South Carolina: The SEC is a line-of-scrimmage league. On both the offensive and defensive lines, the Gamecocks lack the size and talent of most programs in the conference, and that was on full display in Fayetteville.
The Gamecocks' defense was decimated by Arkansas's physicality, losing edge rusher Jordan Strachan, linebacker Mohamed Kaba and nickelback Cam Smith because of injuries. Lineman Alex Huntley, cornerback Darius Rush and safety Brad Johnson also went to the sideline with minor injuries, though all three returned to the game.
"I'm not making excuses, but we got worn down in some ways," Beamer said. "We were doing some stuff with five defensive linemen early in the game ... and when you lose Strachan and you lose Cam and you lose Mo, that limits your ability to play all those defensive personnel packages that were part of our game plan."
Things weren't much better on the other side of the ball. While the offensive line gave Rattler enough time to complete five passes of 15 yards or more, it struggled to give him consistent protection. The quarterback was sacked six times for a combined loss of 51 yards.
"A lot about a quarterback is about who's around you," Pittman said. "I'm not Shane so I can't speak to that, but you've got to have protection. You've got to have guys get open ... If (Rattler) has those things, he's really good."
It was the Gamecocks' second week in a row recording less that half the rushing yards of their opponent. Against Georgia State, the Panthers put up 209 yards to South Carolina's 102, while Arkansas outran the Gamecocks 295 to 40.
"That's just not us, that can't be us, and we're not going to win games if we can't run the ball," Rattler said. "As a group, players and coaches, we've just got to prepare better and do better as a whole."
At the same time, three of South Carolina's four touchdowns were scored by running backs. On five red-zone passes, Rattler completed only one for gain and threw an end zone interception in the fourth quarter.
The anticipated standouts in the offense also haven't made their expected impact. Wake Forest transfer Christian Beal-Smith was highly touted by the coaching staff, but he was invisible in his South Carolina debut with just one target and zero carries.
Sixth-year receiver Josh Vann, a preseason All-SEC selection, also had just one target and has barely been utilized outside of punt returns. Xavier Legette, who was named a starter over Antwane Wells Jr. on the depth chart, was not targeted at all, while Wells finished with 185 receiving yards.
"We definitely need those two guys," Rattler said of Vann and tight end Jaheim Bell. "Those are two of our best players, veterans. ... I believe in those guys, they're two great players and we'll try our best to get them the ball, but sometimes it just doesn't go that way."
With Georgia up next on the schedule, it's going to get worse before it gets better, but there are glimmers of a competitive SEC team in what South Carolina has shown so far.
Rattler had a much better performance in Fayetteville than he did against Georgia State, and he should continue to improve as he grows more comfortable in the offense. The 62-yard touchdown pass to Wells highlighted the playmaking that he's capable of.
Those week-by-week improvements could put South Carolina in position to hold its own against Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida in the second half of the season.
"I think we made progress this week," Beamer said. "We told the team after the game last week, we're better than we were, but we're not as good as we're going to be, and I feel that way right now as well."
With a particularly strong quarterback group entering this year's NFL draft, it wouldn't be surprising to see Rattler stay in Columbia for another season. The Gamecocks also have one of their best recruiting classes in the past decade coming in 2023, with a heavy focus on the trenches. Maybe that fresh talent will be what the team needs to finally put it all together.
Contact Emily Adams at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @eaadams6.