South Carolina football can make a bowl game. Is 4 wins possible?

COLUMBIA — After a fourth straight SEC loss, South Carolina football officially faces a must-win scenario in every game remaining on the schedule to have a chance to reach a bowl game in 2023.

The Gamecocks (2-6, 1-5 SEC) showed more life Saturday in a 30-17 loss at Texas A&M (5-3, 3-2) than in earlier losses to Tennessee and Missouri, but the team continues to struggles with injury setbacks on offense and lack of depth on defense. Quarterback Spencer Rattler played much of the game without any of his starting wide receivers on the field, and starting left guard Trae Jones became the 12th offensive player to suffer an injury this season.

Despite giving up 30-plus points for the fifth straight game, South Carolina’s defense showed flashes of improvement as more of its young talent got more snaps. Redshirt freshman Jayron Willis, an Ole Miss transfer, was a revelation at linebacker against the Aggies, and freshman Judge Collier outplayed senior cornerback O’Donnell Fortune in his first career start.

As the Gamecocks prepare to open their November slate at home against Jacksonville State (7-2) on Nov. 4 (noon, ESPNU), here are the Gamecocks’ keys to reaching the six-game winning streak.

The importance of home field advantage for South Carolina

A four-game SEC losing streak looks bad on paper, but it’s not entirely surprising considering four of the conference’s five losses have come on the road. The Gamecocks are an abysmal 2-10 in SEC games under coach Shane Beamer, and the loss to Texas A&M marked the first time since 2003 that South Carolina lost all of its road games in a season.

Unlike 2022, when South Carolina picked up SEC road wins over Kentucky and Vanderbilt, the Gamecocks traveled to some of the most hostile environments in the country — Tennessee at Neyland Stadium, Georgia at Sanford Stadium, Texas A&M at Kyle Field. Even Missouri had a sellout crowd against South Carolina.

The final four games are at home with just two remaining SEC opponents. The Gamecocks are 2-1 at Williams-Brice Stadium this season, coming off a heartbreaking 41-39 loss against Florida in Week 7. Beamer is 6-4 in conference games and 12-5 overall at home since 2021, while Vanderbilt is not has won at Williams-Brice since 2007. Kentucky beat the Gamecocks at home in 2021.

Taking care of business vs. Jacksonville State, Vanderbilt

South Carolina should be favored against Jacksonville State and Vanderbilt (2-7, 0-5), possibly by a touchdown or more, but neither of those matchups seem like guaranteed wins with the current state of the Gamecocks’ roster. The team almost lost to the Commodores at home in 2021, escaping with a 21-20 win, but is probably more likely to be upset by Jacksonville State.

The other Gamecocks are not bowl eligible this year as they move from the FCS to the FBS, but Jacksonville State has been one of the more consistent mid-major teams this season. They are led by a deep backcourt and a disruptive defensive front, which represents a poor matchup for South Carolina’s struggles in the trenches.

Like South Carolina, Vanderbilt entered the season hoping to build on the problems of Kentucky and Florida in late 2022. Instead, the Commodores were a disaster from the start with losses to Wake Forest and UNLV. Wide receiver Will Shepard and defensive end Nate Clifton are bright spots for Vanderbilt, but even a limited South Carolina should have no problem finding an edge in this matchup.

INJURY PROBLEMS: South Carolina football can’t overcome its mounting injury woes — even with Spencer Rattler

Do the Gamecocks have real upset potential against Kentucky, Clemson?

With the loss at Florida — a game South Carolina entered as the favorite — the Gamecocks’ season will hinge heavily on those two games. Clemson and Kentucky both look significantly less threatening than they did at the start of the season: The Wildcats reached No. 20 in the USA TODAY coaches poll in Week 5 but have lost all three games since, and preseason No. 9 Clemson has four ACC losses for the first time since 2010.

With every game remaining on the schedule a must-win, Kentucky will be the first hurdle. The Wildcats are led by Vanderbilt transfer Ray Davis, who currently leads the SEC with 823 rushing yards. However, transfer quarterback Devin Leary was extremely underwhelming compared to his performance at NC State in 2022, and he’s tied for an SEC-high seven interceptions. The Gamecocks didn’t force a turnover off an interception in Week 5 at Tennessee, so they’re overdue for some luck there.

Clemson looks like a coin toss as quarterback Cade Strawberry continues to struggle and an injury to star Will Shipley could be devastating for the Tigers if it’s a long-term issue. There’s no doubt that Clemson is far more talented than South Carolina on paper, but that was also true last season when the Gamecocks ended the Tigers’ 40-game home game streak. The hottest rivalry in the state is almost certain to be a sellout at Williams-Brice, and South Carolina has enough tricks in the bag to make things chaotic.

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