Photo: Madison MacDonald / The Daily Gamecock

Column: Saturday's game now most important of Muschamp era

With another SEC opponent coming up next, we should find out how good the Gamecocks really are

SEC East champions? Deebo for Heisman? Nine-win season? January bowl game?

These are the questions that are slowly starting to float around the 2-0 South Carolina football team, and for the first time in recent years, it's not unreasonable to consider any of them.

The buzz around the Gamecocks is a testament to what Will Muschamp (and his staff) has accomplished since his arrival in December 2015. Muschamp is now 8-7 in garnet and black, after inheriting a team fresh off a 3-9 season that featured a loss to an FCS opponent.

Muschamp has clearly exceeded expectations, or at least met them ahead of schedule. People are talking about South Carolina football again, which is a huge step, considering the team hasn't been ranked since September 2014.

So now we're two games in, and anticipation and expectations are growing quickly. But the Gamecocks have managed to win two games and nearly earn a spot in the Top 25, without answering questions about how good the team truly can be.

Muschamp said Tuesday, as he often does, that stats don't tell the whole story and that they should be ignored. Part of me wants to agree with him. But shouldn't fans be a little worried about a defense that's given up the most yards in the SEC? Or an offense that's racked up the second fewest?

Maybe they should. But the hype around this team is warranted, and the atmosphere around Williams-Brice Stadium Saturday will likely be the craziest its been since Texas A&M sucked the life out of the building — and the program — in the 2014 season opener.

And with a beatable Kentucky team coming to town for a night game? Gamecock football seems to be on the verge of being back.

We may not fully know what to expect even after Saturday, but this feels like a defining game for Muschamp in his second year in Columbia. Last season, there were no expectations, and a strong second half carried the team into a bowl game.

But after an offseason of hype, and two wins away from home against Power 5 teams, it's time to see how far South Carolina has really come. South Carolina's seniors have never beaten Kentucky, dropping three straight heartbreakers to the Wildcats. If the Gamecocks fall at home this weekend, the hype disappears.

A win, though, and the possibilities still seem endless. With a weaker-than-normal SEC East, writers around the Southeast are starting to circle USC's November date with Georgia as a de facto division title game.

So far, the Gamecocks have played two games on national TV, beating a trendy Playoff pick and shutting down one of the SEC's top offenses, putting themselves back on the map in the process. Saturday, Muschamp has a chance to show a sold-out crowd that Gamecock football is ready to compete in the SEC.

This is the first time Coach Boom has faced real expectations at South Carolina. With a rowdy crowd that's been foaming at the mouth for a Saturday in Williams-Brice, it's time for Muschamp to deliver.

Whether he does or he doesn't, it could go a long way in defining the Gamecocks' season.

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