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Yahoo Sports' 2018 Top 25: No. 25 South Carolina

Can South Carolina, led by Jake Bentley and Deebo Samuel, challenge Georgia in the SEC East? (Photo by Tyler Lecka/Getty Images)

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 college football preseason top 25. A poll that’s guaranteed to be wrong like every other preseason poll out there. Every day in August we’re going to reveal a new team in our top 25 culminating with the reveal of our No. 1 team on Aug. 25. And yes, it’s a team from the SEC.

Let’s get started with our No. 25 team South Carolina, a group poised to be the top challenger to Georgia in the SEC East.

No. 25 SOUTH CAROLINA 

2017 record: 9-4 (5-3 SEC)
Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense

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Offensive continuity continues

South Carolina entered the 2017 season with 10 starters returning from 2016. This year, the number is eight, including quarterback Jake Bentley, running backs Rico Dowdle and AJ Turner and four of the team’s five leading receivers from last season.

Bentley took over as the team’s starting QB midway through the 2016 season and entered 2017 as the undisputed QB1. He completed 62 percent of his passes and threw 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He could and should throw for over 20 touchdowns in 2018.

It would help if he got some support from the run game. Dowdle missed five games because of injury but averaged less than four yards per carry when he was healthy. Turner was at 5.4 and Ty’Son Williams hit 5 on the nose. If Dowdle can get to where they are, South Carolina will have a balanced rushing attack behind an offensive line expected to start three seniors.

Who will help replace LB Skai Moore?

Moore returned for the 2017 season after he missed the 2016 season because of a neck injury. He picked up from where he left off in 2015 and led the team with 93 tackles.

Linebacker T.J. Brunson, the team’s second-leading tackler, is back as the only returning starting linebacker. He’ll need some help cleaning up near the line of scrimmage, but there are a few intriguing candidates in Bryson Allen-Williams, who can line up at all three spots, and sophomore Sherrod Greene. Allen-Williams, a fifth-year senior, has 135 tackles and 15 tackles for loss in his career.

It will be tough to replace Moore, who combined for 203 tackles over his last two years, but there shouldn’t be too significant of a drop-off.

The SEC East schedule sets up well

South Carolina has the benefit of a schedule rotation that only provides one road game that doesn’t automatically scream “winnable.” That’s Nov. 10 at Florida, a week after the Gamecocks visit an Ole Miss team that’s playing for pride once again in 2018.

The other conference road games are at Kentucky and Vanderbilt, two teams picked to finish at the bottom of the East division. That means South Carolina has games against Missouri, a team it beat easily a year ago, and annual West division opponent Texas A&M come to Columbia (South Carolina) in 2018.

If all goes well, and we think it could, this is a team that may have eight or nine wins heading into a season-ending game at Clemson on Nov. 24.

Impact player

Deebo Samuel, WR: Samuel had a hot start to the 2017 season. He scored two touchdowns in a season-opening win against NC State and recorded five catches in each of the first three games for a combined 250 yards. Extrapolate that out to a full season and you’re looking at a stat line that’s worthy of all-SEC consideration.

Alas, Samuel suffered a broken leg in the fourth game of the season against Kentucky and missed the rest of the season. If he’s fully healthy to start the 2018 season — and all signs point to that — South Carolina will have a valuable weapon in Week 2. That game is important because …

Game to Watch

This one is easy. After opening against Coastal Carolina on Sept. 1, the Gamecocks host defending SEC champion Georgia on Sept. 8. Whoever wins this game has an early lead in the SEC East. That’s kind of important, isn’t it?

A win over the Bulldogs would establish SC as legitimate contenders in the East. And it would also be the first win over Georgia for the program since 2014, when a then-No. 24 South Carolina squad coached by Steve Spurrier took down a top-10 Georgia team 38-35.

Everybody else is looking up at Georgia in the SEC East. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

Best-case scenario

South Carolina pulls an upset of Georgia in Week 2, only drops games to Clemson and someone else (Florida?) and wins the East with a 7-1 conference record and goes on to face the SEC West winner in the SEC Championship Game.

We’re also guessing Gamecock fans would settle for a 6-2 conference record and second in the division. South Carolina hasn’t gone 6-2 in the SEC since 2013.

Worst-case scenario

Samuel doesn’t shed the injury-prone label and misses a significant portion of the season for the third time. Dowdle or another running back either underperforms or gets injured too and the Gamecocks can’t hold down homefield advantage. Losses to Georgia, Florida and Missouri mean South Carolina ends up fighting for fourth in the conference and an above .500 season.

Prediction

Let’s peg the Gamecocks for somewhere in the neighborhood of an 8 or 9-win season with losses to Georgia, Florida and Clemson. A sweep of everything else would mean 9-3. That’s not much margin for error so let’s settle for 8-4.

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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