Columbia, S.C.—For the past three years South Carolina coach Will Muschamp and his staff have been selling a vision.
The vision was a day when the Gamecocks could bring a high school recruit here and show him—not just promise him—that the commitment to football in terms of facilities was a strong as any in the SEC.
As Muschamp sat in his glass-encased corner office at the just-opened $50 million Long Family Football Operations Center, that day has finally arrived. The christening of the new facility, which includes such bells and whistles as a recording studio donated by alumnus Darius Rucker (Hootie and the Blowfish), is nothing less than a “game-changer,” said Muschamp.
“Every time we get a parent here they want to know: ‘Are you investing in my son?,” said Muschamp, set to begin his fourth season as head coach. “Now we’ve shown the investment we’re willing to make to win a championship.”
So the investment in football facilities, which also includes another $14.3 million for the Jerri and Steve Spurrier indoor practice field, compares favorably with any football operations complex in the SEC.
Now comes the hard part. You gotta win.
Muschamp, the former head coach at Florida, is the first South Carolina head coach to take the Gamecocks to a bowl in each of his first three seasons. That’s the good.
Here is the not-so-good. The 2018 season was a disappointment on a number of levels. Gamecocks were picked by the media to finish second in the SEC East behind Georgia. Instead the Gamecocks finished fourth (7-6, 4-4).
After a 27-24 home win at Tennessee and a 48-44 win at Ole Miss, the Gamecocks thought they might be set up for a good finish. But South Carolina lost at Florida (35-31) after leading by 17 in the third quarter. Then the Gamecocks were dominated at Clemson (56-35), the eventual national champion and then pretty much didn’t show up for the Belk Bowl in Charlotte, losing to Virginia 28-0.
Muschamp pulled no punches when asked for his honest assessment of the 2018 team.
“I don’t think we were a very accountable football team in terms of us being accountable to each other,” Muschamp said. “And that was frustrating. There were issues we had not dealt with here (before) that just crept into our football team.”
“Needless to say that has been a point of emphasis this Spring.”
Now in fairness it should be pointed out that South Carolina’s defense wasn’t just limited by injuries last season. It was decimated by injuries. When a team lacks quality depth, as was the case with the Gamecocks, the SEC can be a very unforgiving place in November.
“Obviously we had some injuries and they were all on the defensive side of the ball,” said Muschamp. “But that’s where recruiting comes in. In this league you have to have depth and competition.”
At 425.6 yards per game, South Carolina had its best offense in the three years Muschamp has been here. In that respect the commitment to the up-tempo offense bore fruit.
But the offense could not hide another set of numbers that have to be addressed if the Gamecocks are going to be better. In 2018 South Carolina was:
**--12th in the SEC in rushing (152.7 ypg).
**--13th in rushing defense (195.31 ypg).
**--12th in total defense (424.3 ypg).
**--11th in scoring defense (27.2 ypg)
**--12th in turnover margin at minus-5. Eight of South Carolina’s 21 total turnovers (only Arkansas had more with 26) came in the red zone.
“Let’s say we kick field goals instead turning the ball over in the red zone. That’s 24 points spread throughout the season,” said Muschamp. “That’s a big difference.”
Addressing all of those negative numbers starts with one thing:
“It all starts with the ability to run the football and stopping the run,” said Muschamp. “It was something we emphasized last year but this this year I think we are much better up front on the both sides of the ball than we have been the past three years.”
Keep an eye on senior running back Rico Dowdle, who has led the team in rushing in two of the past three seasons but has not be able to stay on the field due to injuries.
Rising senior Jake Bentley is the second-leading returning passer (behind Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa) in the SEC with 3,171 yards and 27 touchdowns last season. But Bentley also had 14 interceptions. Six of those picks were in the red zone.
“That’s too many,” said Muschamp. “Jake is our best quarterback right now. There are things he knows he needs to improve on.”
Bentley graduated from high school a full year early and eventually became the starting quarterback midway through the 2016 season. Last season Bentley threw a critical red-zone interception in the first quarter of a 26-23 loss to Texas A&M. It was Bentley’s seventh interception in four games and some fans booed.
While playing on a bad knee that kept him out the week before, Bentley led his team back from a 16-0 deficit to tie the game at 16-all. Trailing 26-16 late, Bentley got his team within three points with 90 seconds left. But time ran out.
“That’s life. Obviously it’s disappointing to hear that from the fans but they just want to win too,” Bentley told reporters after the game. “And so do I.”
Should Bentley struggle to protect the ball this season, Muschamp and OC Bryan McLendon have some options. Muschamp said he has been “pleased with the development” of redshirt freshman Dakereon Joyner, a former South Carolina “Mr. Football.”
True freshman Ryan Hilinski is a four-star player out of California who enrolled early. He was also offered by Arizona, Arizona State, and Boise State.
And did we mention the schedule? Based on Mark Schlabach’s Way Too Early Top 25, this season South Carolina will face:
No. 1 Clemson, Nov. 30 in Columbia
No. 2 Alabama, Sept. 14 in Columbia
No. 4 Georgia, Oct. 12 in Athens
No. 8 Florida, Oct. 19 in Columbia
No. 11 Texas A&M, Nov. 16 in College Station
“We told our guys to just worry about us,” said Muschamp. “The way we look at it is that we have a great opportunity ahead of us.”