David Cloninger

Muschamp’s job in Year 1 deserves SEC nod

Will Muschamp for SEC Coach of the Year.

Really.

Who else deserves it? Nick Saban, for guiding the best recruits and players in America to a thus-far undefeated season? Gus Malzahn, for resurrecting Auburn after a bad start?

All have criteria, especially if Malzahn beats Alabama next week, and I’m sure Saban will win the prize if the Crimson Tide stay perfect. But I also say, who did more with less than Muschamp?

He took over a 3-9 team that had its legendary coach quit in the middle of the season a year ago. He lost his two best players, one to the NFL and one to a neck injury. He had no known quantities on offense, except for an underperforming line in relation to its experience, and his defense spent the past two seasons treating the middle of the field like an open sore.

It could be argued that Muschamp’s best player before the year was his kicker. And yet here the Gamecocks are, bowl-eligible after beginning the season 2-4, and it was Muschamp’s decision – deciding it was worth it to yank Jake Bentley’s redshirt – that keyed it.

Yes, Saban reconstructed his defense and abandoned his power running game to let a freshman quarterback freelance. But you expect Saban to win (he gets paid enough to), and he had five-star after five-star athlete to choose from.

Muschamp didn’t have much to work with. It wasn’t that his best offensive players weren’t talented, per se, but they were unknown and unhealthy. But the defense, his specialty, was comprised of holdovers from a unit that was the biggest cause for 7-6 and 3-9 letdowns after 33-6 over three years. Somehow, he got those guys together and made them one of the country’s best teams in takeaways and red-zone defense.

Detractors ask why he didn’t play Bentley sooner, considering the wreck of the SEC East this year could’ve had the Gamecocks playing in Atlanta and going to a major bowl. But Bentley wasn’t ready, and keep in mind that he would’ve been playing with the same handicaps of Perry Orth and Brandon McIlwain (no Rico Dowdle and hurt receivers).

Who’s to say it would have worked out the way folks think … or that winning the SEC East and being kicked around for three hours by the Tide was any kind of reward? Going to a minor bowl game certainly means a better chance to win it, which if Muschamp does and ends his first year 7-6, he’ll be one of only two USC coaches who won a bowl game in his first season.

“At the beginning, there was a little question mark there,” linebacker Jonathan Walton said of preseason bowl thoughts. “Once we saw the potential we had, and the potential of the guys out there on the field, we knew what we could do.”

Muschamp recalled talking with Qua Lewis after the 2-4 start, and the JUCO transfer said he just wanted to get to a bowl.

“When you’re able to fulfill something like that to a guy like that who’s given everything to South Carolina and loves this place, loves being a Gamecock, that’s really important,” Muschamp said. “To see the look on his face, a lot of those guys’ faces, especially the seniors, it’s almost a bit of relief to be able to say, ‘We’re going to a bowl game.’”

So Will Muschamp for SEC Coach of the Year.

Really.

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