What will story of South Carolina’s season be? Answer might not come this year

It can be hard in the moment to judge a season.

What looks groundbreaking can turn bad. What is ugly can become incredible.

Two examples:

In 2021, backed by a roster stockpiled with transfer portal acquisitions, Michigan State went 11-2. Mel Tucker became one of the hottest names in the coaching world and inked a 10-year, $95 million contract. Two years later, the Spartans are 2-5 and Tucker was fired with allegations of sexual assault.

Back in the funky 2020 COVID season, Florida State went 3-6. Its offense was bad. The defense was worse. Freshman quarterback Jordan Travis struggled. Head coach Mike Norvell was on the hot seat, and might have been jobless if his buyout wasn’t so high. Three years later, Florida State is undefeated and Norvell and Travis are thriving.

There is so much emotion in college football that it can cloud the bigger picture. For good and bad.

Next season will be an inflection point for South Carolina football, because inflection points almost always follow adversity.

After losing to Texas A&M, 30-17, on Saturday, the Gamecocks (2-6, 1-5 SEC) need to win out to make a bowl game. Given their current circumstances, that seems unlikely.

Shane Beamer took the USC head coaching job three seasons ago. Perhaps the worst thing he did was win early. He notched seven wins in Year One, then eight last season. He did not provide hope so much as he set the bar really high.

Which makes it harder to sell fans on a season like 2023, where nothing has gone right for the Gamecocks. Over the summer, they lost their best three defensive players to the NFL Draft. Their starting running back bolted for Southern California. And then their starting left tackle suffered a season-ending injury in the spring game.

Somehow, it only got worse.

At some point this season, 12 different offensive linemen — including left guard Trai Jones, who left Saturday’s game with a high-ankle sprain — have received an injury designation. Top receiver Juice Wells has missed all but a few plays this year. Breakout receiver Xavier Legette has battled injuries as of late, including against the Aggies. And, because the training room wasn’t full enough, starting tight end Trey Knox did not play after the third quarter with a hamstring injury.

The story of the 2023 season right now is all about injuries. About a once-promising season becoming uglier and uglier each week. About one of the most-talented quarterbacks in South Carolina history (Spencer Rattler) just trying to stay upright every Saturday. About a defense that can fix its problems for a drive, but never a game.

That is how we look at this South Carolina teams right now. But, let’s think out five-or-so years. What will be the story of this South Carolina team?

Either this was the season Beamer’s tenure took a turn for the worse, or this was the year some of South Carolina’s best players got tons of experience and confidence.

And, the latter is certainly possible.

Think about this: South Carolina started seven underclassmen (redshirt sophomore or younger). The offense started two true freshmen on Saturday (RG Trovon Baugh and WR Nyck Harbor).

If all goes to plan, the Gamecocks will have — at least — nine uber-experienced starters in two years. Amid all the disappointment in this year, it’s hard to not look to the future and think all of this losing could lead to winning.

“Playing this many freshmen in critical spots, they’re gonna be better for it,” Beamer said. “One thing I was talking to (Texas A&M) coach (Jimbo) Fisher before the game was, he played a lot of freshmen on the offensive line last season. And, now, they’re pretty dang good up front.”

Beamer is also sure to not use the freshman angle as an excuse, saying that after eight games they’re not freshmen to him anymore. Which is understandable, but a number of his freshmen weren’t supposed to be playing yet. They are still young. Still inexperienced. Still making freshman mistakes.

The injuries have all but destroyed this season. Perhaps South Carolina will run the table, beat Clemson at home and Beamer will look like the greatest coach in November history. Or perhaps this team will continue to struggle and miss a bowl.

And maybe it’ll be the start of another ugly few years. Or maybe it’ll all be for the best.