South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley (19) may have played his last game for the Gamecocks on Saturday against North Carolina in Charlotte. Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina

COLUMBIA — It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Jake Bentley was supposed to forever rid himself of his bothersome reputation this season. In 2019, it would be Bentley playing his best throughout 12 games as he truly became one of the greatest quarterbacks in South Carolina history, proving to all that he could win the big games and be the NFL talent many believe he is.

Instead, he got through one lousy game with a lousier ending. Not only did the Gamecocks lose to an 11-point underdog, but Bentley was hurt on his final play of the Gamecocks' 24-20 loss to North Carolina.

And now a man who was under center for 33 games, sometimes the hero but always the target of an increasingly livid fan base, isn’t. His future at USC hinges on a medical opinion.

If Bentley needs surgery, his season is over. If he doesn’t, he could return in 6-8 weeks.

But what would he return to? A team that may not need him and a fan base that doesn’t want him?

“The guy puts everything into being the quarterback here at South Carolina. It's very difficult. It's hard,” coach Will Muschamp said. “He was at practice today and wants to be in the meetings and wants to be involved to help Ryan (Hilinski) and Dakereon (Joyner) and be a leader, but that's who he is. That's the kind of person he is and how he was raised.”

Bentley clearly won’t be doing anything for a significant amount of time. If surgery is necessary, his USC career may have ended when his offensive line allowed that final pressure, causing him to scramble, slip and wrench his foot (a Lisfranc injury). He will have another year of eligibility because he has not redshirted, and he could do what many graduate players do — transfer and play another season somewhere else.

At that point, Hilinski (or Joyner) would have had the starting QB role for at least 11 games and would be the future, and Bentley could decide to come back and challenge for the spot he once had.

As ballyhooed as Hilinski is, he’s still making his college debut Saturday against Charleston Southern. If he’s ineffective, and Bentley doesn’t need surgery, who knows? The same fans that were demanding a change after the UNC game could be begging Bentley to return once he’s healthy.

If that is an option, Bentley would have to look at the number of remaining games and add them to the one he’s already played. If the sum is over four, he would have to decide if playing those four games for what could be a lost season is worth burning an extra year of eligibility.

Bentley should know by the end of this week if surgery is his best option, and if he will get another chance to improve what’s been a painful legacy at USC.

Right now, it’s exactly what it was before the UNC game. He’s won a lot of games and put himself within striking distance of a lot of school records.

But he never had that one key win, never got that moment when he could finally shed his nice-guy image and tell all of his doubters to stuff it. A man that always took the blame for the team’s failures, whether or not he had anything to do with them, is living a horrendous week after a bad game, an injury and the popular method of voicing displeasure these days — through social media.

One guy started a GoFundMe fundraiser to give Bentley his diploma “so he will go away.” Another posted a video of a guy pretending to be Bentley looking at his open receivers, only to throw to the one in the UNC shirt.

Once word began to trickle out about the injury, many actually claimed that Bentley was dogging the injury, that USC was making it all up just to save face.

“Fan” is short for “fanatic,” and some people can be too passionate. Yet it’s no stretch to say that had Bentley been all right for this week’s game, he almost assuredly would have started and almost assuredly would have been booed the first time he touched the ball.

“It was a sad thing,” USC center Donell Stanley said. “I told him I was behind him 100 percent, and I’ve been in his shoes and I know how it feels.”

It’s been a rough three years for Bentley at USC. No, he didn’t play well at times, didn't always meet the expectations of the team and the fans.

He also didn’t play badly while winning 19 games, including the only time in the Muschamp era the Gamecocks have beaten a Top 25 team, and a thrilling comeback against Michigan to notch just the seventh nine-win season in program history.

He deserved better than to go out like he did, if the UNC game was his last USC game. There is a chance he could return and truly end his USC career with the great performances that seemed destined, but would anybody welcome it?

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.

From Rock Hill, S.C., David Cloninger covers Gamecock sports. He will not rest until he owns every great film and song ever recorded.

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