Will Muschamp and Gamecocks Face Pivotal 2018 Campaign
The South Carolina Gamecocks have overachieved the last two seasons. Coach Will Muschamp inherited a three-win team, with major deficiencies throughout its roster. He has been able to stabilize the football program and get them back on the right track. Considering the progress made in the last two seasons, 2018 could be a pivotal year for the Gamecocks. They have an opportunity to solidify itself as a future contender in the SEC and beyond. They must strike at this opportunity now, because there is no telling how long that window will be open. A big season in 2018 could help set this football program up for future success at a higher level. Aside from the tough schedule, there are historical factors South Carolina must overcome in order to take the next step.
Inheriting a Mess
When Will Muschamp took over this program, things were looking pretty bleak. During the three-win season of 2015, the Gamecocks had a walk-ons start SEC games at quarterback and wide receiver. Recruiting misses and just plain failures left the roster weakened. Even last season, as Carolina won nine games, they did so with only 59 scholarship players. It is extremely difficult to compete at the highest level with those numbers. Coach Muschamp has revamped this roster in a hurry. Due to playing so many freshman and sophomores the last two seasons, he will have a veteran team in year three.
One of the things working against South Carolina is the meteoric rise of their two biggest rivals. The Clemson Tigers and Georgia Bulldogs were in the College Football Playoff last season, and are both ranked in the top three in most preseason polls. Rivalries are heated, contentious, and a year-round source of pride or pain in the south when it comes to football. It can become hard for fans or pundits to accurately gauge a programs progress when in comparison to its rivals doing so well. The Gamecocks can still have a successful season even if they are not able to defeat their two bitter rivals. Closing the gap in talent and consistent performance at a high level is a more important focus. They have other business to take care of to set themselves up to compete at that level in the future.
South Carolina finished second in the SEC East in 2017 behind the aforementioned Bulldogs. Since the conference split into divisions, the Florida Gators and Tennessee Volunteers have mostly dominated the eastern side. Each of those football programs is currently in a state of flux. Georgia has clearly established itself atop the East, but behind them things are wide open. The Gamecocks need to take advantage of Florida and Tennessee’s recent turmoil and solidify themselves as the Bulldogs biggest challenger.
The Volunteers are on their fourth coach in the last decade. That may be only the most superficial of that program’s issues. Their roster is not loaded with the talent expected of a program with Tennessee’s history. The Gators have parted ways with Jim McElwain after last season, and Dan Mullen takes over this year. Despite two Eastern division titles under McElwain, Florida has some major issues to address. South Carolina needs to finish above both of these teams in 2018. Before they can worry about catching up to their most hated rivals, they first need to distance themselves from Florida and Tennessee while those programs are in transition.
In the same vain, as the need to stay ahead of the Gators and Volunteers, South Carolina has two streaks it needs to end this season. The Gamecocks have lost four in a row to the Kentucky Wildcats. This troubling streak is becoming an increasingly sore subject in Columbia. The Wildcats have had their number for a variety of reasons, with last season’s loss being the most disheartening. Kentucky were more physical and just plain out worked the Gamecocks at Williams-Brice stadium in 2017. If they want to get to a level where they can compete and contend with Georgia, Clemson, and Alabama in the college football world, they first need to start beating Kentucky.
The Texas A&M match-up falls into that same category. The Aggies have beaten South Carolina in each of their meetings as SEC foes. With recent alignment and scheduling switches, these two have become each other’s permanent crossover opponent. A&M is a solid program, and just hired national championship winning coach Jimbo Fisher from Florida State. Will Muschamp and company get the Aggies at Williams-Brice in 2018. They need to breakthrough with their first win against them this season. Aspiring to contend at the top is what every program should do, but it’s important to first prove your better than the teams equal to or below your current position.
The Will Muschamp Notion
Muschamp has always been well respected as a defensive guru and a relentless recruiter. The defenses he had at Florida, Auburn, Texas, and LSU were all stout physical units with loads of elite talent. Unfortunately, he was never able to figure out the offensive side of the ball as the head man at Florida. Even with a slew of returning contributors from a nine win team, the Gamecocks are not receiving much hype nationally. Part of that is the notion that Muschamp’s team will always struggle offensively. Until his team goes out and proves this not to be the case, that stigma will stick around.
South Carolina has a two-year starter returning at quarterback, a solid running back group, and a deep and talented receiving corps. They are transitioning to an up-tempo offense in 2018, hoping to become more explosive and consistent putting up points. Due to how badly things went at times in Gainesville, most pundits will not believe a Muschamp coached team can produce offensively until it’s proven on the field.
The other factor in the lack of preseason hype for a nine-win team is the history of the football program itself. The Gamecocks have only won the SEC East once, in 2010. In the following three seasons, they were arguably the most talented program in the SEC East. However, each season they had a slip up that cost them a trip to Atlanta. Much like the need for a Muschamp-coached team to prove its offensive capabilities, the Gamecocks as a program have to prove they can win when it matters.
Building and Progressing
The 2018 season is set up nicely for South Carolina. The burden will be on this team to take advantage of the opportunity in front of them. They have the returning talent to beat most of the teams on their schedule, and at least compete with their two main rivals. This will likely not be the season that they catch up to the likes of Georgia and Clemson. However, this could be the year where they prove they have what it takes to close the gap between them. They must first keep the teams around them at bay as they fight to become a contender. The recruiting in Columbia has stepped up significantly since Will Muschamp arrived. He is clearly bringing in the talent he needs to compete at the highest level. Now it is about producing results on the field.
When building a program, progress is not always made in leaps and bounds. The Gamecocks cannot try to skip steps in that process, and must take care of the business around them so that they can set loftier goals in the future. The 2018 season presents an opportunity to stake their claim as the team to challenge Georgia in the SEC East for years to come. South Carolina will need to show it has the consistency and mental toughness to perform at a high level all season.
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