Competing in the SEC is not for everybody.
Lost in the shuffle of the annual arms race between some combination of Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Auburn is a collection of currently good-not-great football programs looking to make a statement. Most years, these schools fight tooth and nail with each other just to crawl out of mediocrity and into conference contention.
Of the more 'difficult' SEC head coaching positions, such as jobs at Missouri, Kentucky, and Vanderbilt, few pose more of a challenge than South Carolina. Building a winner, and sustaining it, is something only College Football Hall of Fame coach Steve Spurrier has managed to do in Columbia, with three straight 11-win campaigns from 2011 to 2013. Following Spurrier's retirement in 2015, former Florida head coach Will Muschamp ushered in a promising but ultimately disappointing tenure with the Gamecocks, getting fired in the midst of a 2-8 season in 2020.
It's no exaggeration to say that new head coach Shane Beamer has changed all expectations about the future of South Carolina football in just one season. Picked by most pundits to fall near the bottom of the conference, Beamer's crew put together a 7-6 record to finish fourth in the SEC East. Although wins against elite competition were hard to come by, SC took care of business against evenly-matched teams, with victories over Auburn, Florida, and North Carolina. It may have been baby steps, but the college football world certainly took note.
Quest for a Quarterback
After the 2021 season, Beamer recognized that to get the most out of his offense, an upgrade at quarterback was needed. After losing sophomore Luke Doty to a foot injury five games into the season, the coaching staff turned to a combination of senior Jason Brown and grad transfer Zeb Noland for the rest of the year before receiver (and former quarterback) Dakereon Joyner led the team to victory over North Carolina in the Outback Bowl. The quartet combined to produce the nation's 95th ranked passing offense, a mediocre mark in a conference with gunslingers like Alabama's Bryce Young and Georgia's Stetson Bennett.
Once seen as a Heisman favorite, Spencer Rattler's fall from grace as Oklahoma's starting quarterback was sudden. A string of mediocre performances forced then-head coach Lincoln Riley to install Caleb Williams as the team's new QB, making Rattler's departure from Norman via the transfer portal a matter of when, not if. Beamer, a former Oklahoma assistant, was quick to take advantage of his connection with Rattler, convincing the junior, along with tight end Austin Stogner, to join the Gamecocks.
Regardless of any recent struggles, nailing a player of Rattler's talent is a major coup for Beamer. The former five-star prospect fills a major area of need for the Gamecocks, who haven't had a true playmaker at quarterback in years. Even if Rattler falters as an SEC starter, four-star recruit Tanner Bailey will be waiting in the wings.
Building A Contender
Even with the addition of Rattler, there is still plenty of room for improvement for the Gamecocks; an inconsistent offensive line led to struggles in both the running and passing game. Several playmakers from a defense that surrendered an average of 24 points per game, including pass-rushing specialist Kingsley Enagbare, won't be returning to the program.
Still, the efforts of Beamer and his staff to find quality recruits should have fans feeling optimistic. Including Bailey and fellow quarterback Braden Davis, South Carolina managed to enroll four different four-star prospects en route to landing the nation's 26th-best recruiting class, according to 247Sports. Combined with the continued progression of 2020's 19th-best crew, including five-star defensive lineman Jordan Burch, and it's clear that Beamer is a dual-threat as a recruiter and in-game coach.
With new faces, crucial returnees, such as top wide receiver Josh Vann, and a rising star at head coach, the future is bright in Columbia. If the Rattler era goes well, then it could establish SC as a potential destination where talented players can start immediately, instead of competing with other four and five stars at schools like Georgia and Alabama. If not, Beamer's talented first two recruiting classes still have the program in great shape. South Carolina, long ignored as the second-best program in their own state, should have the SEC's attention sooner rather than later.