When South Carolina hired head coach Will Muschamp, most college football fans and writers were highly skeptical that such a pairing would work.
Muschamp failed at Florida and was coming off a disappointing year as Auburn’s defensive coordinator, where his defense finished 71st nationally. People forgot that Muschamp was at one time considered the next big-time coach. He spent a lot of time with Nick Saban at LSU and with the Miami Dolphins, was the coach-in-waiting behind Mack Brown at Texas and was the head coach of Florida.
Now, here he is in Columbia, where he is largely being ignored by the national media. However, people should take note of what he accomplished last year. South Carolina was predicted to finish dead last in the SEC East, and with good reason. That was a roster that seemed completely devoid of talent. It looked like either a walk-on or true freshman would be the quarterback, Skai Moore was going to miss the whole season and there were question marks at almost every position.
The Gamecocks ended up making it to a bowl game, all while finding a bevy of young talent. This was catalyzed by Muschamp making the call to burn quarterback Jake Bentley’s redshirt. It was a bold move, but it looks like it has paid off in a major way for the Gamecocks.
Bentley now has an incredible arsenal of skill players at his disposal this season. With players like Bryan Edwards, Rico Dowdle, Ty’Son Williams, Deebo Samuel and many more, the Gamecock offense looks potent.
The defense was exposed a bit in the spring game, but it is difficult to be overly critical in a spring game. Moore is a special player and his leadership will help bolster the defense. Muschamp is also one of the better defensive minds in college football, so it would be very shocking if he didn’t have this unit ready come fall.
The coaching staff is also eagerly awaiting the remainder of the 2017 recruiting class to come in. Players like Jamyest Williams, Javon Kinlaw and Keisean Nixon are expected to make an immediate impact on the defense.
On paper it looks like the Gamecocks could be a dark horse for the race to Atlanta. Their schedule is manageable with SEC road games at Mizzou, Tennessee, Georgia and Texas A&M.
Tennessee and Texas A&M are replacing several players from last season, including their quarterbacks and top pass rushers. Mizzou is, well, Mizzou. That is a game South Carolina shouldn’t lose. Georgia is going to be a tough one, but the Gamecocks can likely afford to drop two SEC games and still make it to Atlanta, like Florida did last year.
Speaking of Florida, the Gators are replacing their entire defense, have a new defensive coordinator and are looking for a new quarterback. They’ve got an easy schedule, but still have to play LSU and Texas A&M from the SEC West. In addition, they visit Columbia this season. It’s hard to imagine that Muschamp doesn’t have that game circled on his calendar.
Then, there is Georgia. The Bulldogs will be picked to win the East this year just based on how many returning starters there are in Athens. The problem is that Kirby Smart is unproven as a coach, and he did very little on the field last season to instill confidence that he’s a good coach. He and the Bulldogs have to go to Tennessee and Auburn, where Georgia could easily lose. They also host one of the most dangerous quarterbacks in the SEC in Nick Fitzgerald when Mississippi State shows up between the hedges in late September. Georgia is going to have to play very well to win the East.
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks will come in with minimal expectations. They can play with a chip on their shoulder, but also without a ton of pressure from the fan base. That combination, as well as a young team with a coach who has something to prove, screams dark horse.