Will Muschamp’s last address of the 2016 season delivered a window into the mindset of a coach and a program.
As his news conference to wrap up the Birmingham Bowl wound down, the question was posed: was he satisfied with the season? Keep in mind, his team doubled its win total with a misshapen roster and loads of youth at key spots.
“No,” Muschamp said. “We’ve got a long way to go.”
It’s a stark outlook. It’s a message a coach wants trickling down though every corner of a program. It’s one probably more than 120 of the 128 programs in FBS will tell you they take when everyone is sitting in a news conference.
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And perhaps behind the scenes, perhaps in recruiting meetings, a coach is looking at the pieces, the moments and the little things that give a solid season a little more meaning.
South Carolina’s 13th game, the Birmingham Bowl against South Florida, played as a microcosm of the team’s season. There were fundamental breakdowns: tackling and secondary busts. There were flashes of progress: an offense that showed up in a way it hasn’t all season. There were the follies of youth: several inopportune turnovers and penalties.
There was even a bad start (down 18 points/falling to 2-4 six games in), an impressive rally (tying things up/a 4-2 run to bowl eligibility) and finally a kick in the shins in the last stanza to leave a sour taste in the mouth (the brutal loss to Clemson/just about everything that happened in overtime).
In an objective sense, the Gamecocks’ season was just OK. They beat the teams they should and at their level, took down a better opponent right as it started a swoon. They didn’t punch up often and had plenty of moments looking rough around the edges against all comers.
But they did it in spots where most would have expected less. Their secondary, offensive line, quarterbacks, running backs and wide receivers were all, at different points, asked to throw all manner of bodies on the field.
Most teams like that stay home from bowls, finishing last in divisions. They chalk things up to a program reset.
USC can still do all that, and came away with six wins and a few bowl practices to show for it. Then there’s the smaller things, watching an underclassman-heavy offense go off and seeing it not come apart facing a massive deficit.
Accumulating those doesn’t guarantee a jump or a road to long-term success, but any program that reaches those points can point to something early.
Even after the loss, center Cory Helms looked at a few key turnovers in big moments and pointed out, of course, those guys didn’t mean to have those miscues.
“We’re young,” Helms said. “Everybody makes mistakes. The future’s really bright next year.”
That starts when the recruiting calendar rolls over. Muschamp mentioned the frustration when his defense couldn’t finish plays, but he also turned attention to the fact good teams could spread his group out and find advantages in speed and talent.
“A lot of our issues need to be addressed in February,” Muschamp said. “That’s what we’ll do.”
That’s another piece, one of many for a program not where it wants to be, but one that wraps 2016 farther ahead than it really had any right to be.