If it wasn’t the first Southeastern Conference football game of the season, not many people would be excited about the South Carolina-Vanderbilt game on Sept. 1, but there may not be a more important game all season for Will Muschamp and Derek Mason.
Mason is entering his third season as the Commodores head coach with a 7-17 career record. Muschamp will be in his first game as the Gamecocks head coach and trying to prove his four-year tenure at Florida was an aberration.
By the time the calendar hits Sept. 2, one rebuilding team will be headed up and the other still will be rebuilding.
“You know what? That’s the way it should be,” Mason said this week at the conference’s annual spring meetings. “This is the SEC. Anytime you have an SEC opener, what you’re talking about is an opportunity for somebody to get ahead and an opportunity for somebody to fall behind. We all know what’s at stake, new chapter for Will, for me it’s the beginning of the third year and an opportunity for this team to really make a statement about who we are.”
The Commodores finished 4-8 overall and 2-6 in the SEC last season. The Gamecocks are coming off a 3-9 season that included just one conference victory (which came against Vanderbilt).
Mason’s Vanderbilt tenure and Muschamp’s time at Florida share some similarities. Both coaches have defensive backgrounds and got good defensive play from their teams while struggling on offense, particularly at quarterback.
“I think the difference between me and Will’s situation is I made some changes in year one,” Mason said. “I changed coordinators in year one. With that being the case, I allowed us to try to get on track just a little faster. In doing that, we have been able to stabilize the quarterback situation.”
Muschamp lost offensive coordinator Charlie Weis after his first season at Florida when Weis took the head coaching job at Kansas. Mason fired both of his coordinators after his first season and now has Andy Ludwig running the offense. The Commodores are expected to start sophomore Kyle Shurmur at quarterback.
“I feel like for the first time since I’ve been there we’ve got a solid quarterback situation,” Mason said. “If you go back and look at where we have struggled the last two years, it’s been turnovers. If we can take care of the football, if we can score points and put ourselves in a situation where we can stay with teams, I think we can beat some teams in this conference.”
Muschamp is 1-0 all-time against Mason. His Gators, who also were coached by Gamecocks offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, beat the Commodores 34-10 in 2014, Mason’s first season as Vanderbilt’s head coach.
“Kurt Roper is a great coach,” Mason said. “It’s not me against Kurt Roper. It’s Vanderbilt against South Carolina. Most coordinators are what they are. Over time, you learn wrinkles and you adapt your system to what you have on your roster.”