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QB or not QB?

That was the question … until about two minutes into Will Muschamp’s weekly press conference Tuesday.

That’s when Muschamp opted to go ahead and get out in front of any lingering suspicions about who would start behind center for Saturday’s game against Texas A&M. If healthy, it will be entrenched junior starter Jake Bentley, not senior Mike Scarnecchia, the hero of last week’s comeback win over Missouri.

"Jake practiced today -- I thought he looked good -- if he's healthy for Saturday, he'll be the starter," Muschamp said. "But I told Jake and Mike, both of them need to be ready to go play. We've got two guys we can go win with and that's good to have."

Scarnecchia threw for 249 yards and three touchdowns and led USC on a game-winning drive in the final minute to upend Missouri, 37-35. Bentley was injured in his last outing, a 24-10 loss to Kentucky, where he threw three interceptions.

Bentley is certainly the safer move, a Muschamp hallmark. USC’s coach likes to play things conservative, and there’s a body of work present and a level of comfort with Bentley, who has stayed above Scarnecchia on the depth chart for the last three years for a reason.

On the other side of the coin though, there’s a definite case for Scarnecchia. He was nearly flawless against Missouri, so there’s hope the Gamecocks could catch lightning in a bottle and ride the hot hand to a strong finish. It’s happened to teams before.

Yep, it’s the quarterback controversy no one saw coming for 2018, but if Bentley plays well Saturday and the Gamecocks win, it quietly goes away. If he struggles? Well this thing might get worse before it gets better. A scenario most probably thought unimagineable a few months ago could play out, and you could see Bentley lifted from a game not because he was hurt but because he was not performing.

That probably can’t happen in a scenario where USC beats Texas A&M Saturday. The No. 22 Aggies are too talented.

Three keys

  • Best Bentley. Healthy or not, Bentley can’t be the guy that threw for 9 yards in the first half and three picks against Kentucky. He’ll need to be more like the guy who led the Gamecocks to a win in the Outback Bowl last year against a great Michigan defense. If USC gets “Best Bentley” they’ll have an opportunity to end a four-year losing streak against the Aggies.
  • Shore up the run defense. Saturday’s win over Missouri was an anomaly in many ways. The Gamecocks got out of Williams-Brice Stadium without another loss, despite being out-rushed 286-128. That kind of statistical disparity can’t be overcome two weeks in a row.
  • Win third down (again). The Gamecocks’ defense has been tremendous in getting opponents off the field on third down. USC ranks fourth in the country in the statistic, allowing the competition to convert just 15 of 60 attempts this year.

Inside the numbers

The Aggies opened as a two-point favorite, while the total has settled at over/under 53 points. The Gamecocks have struggled against better competition this year, covering in all three wins and losing against the number in both losses. Texas A&M has covered in both of its losses (Clemson and Alabama).

Computer simulations actually lean toward the Gamecocks in this one, but with questions at quarterback, it’s tough to play USC this week. The total looks to be the more attractive option, however, there are just too many variables here.

The play: no action.

Re-predicting the record

The Gamecocks (3-2, 2-2) cleared a major tossup game last week with a win and stayed on track to avoid a bowl game west of the Mississippi.

  • Projected wins: Tennessee, Chattanooga.
  • Projected losses: Clemson.
  • Tossups: Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Florida.

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Brantley Strickland, formerly sports editor for The Times and Democrat, now works as an economic developer for Southern Carolina Regional Development Alliance. Reach him at strickland.brantley@gmail.com.

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