South Carolina football coach Will Muschamp isn’t one to delve into questions such as this: Was his third season disappointing?
But he is a man who often sums things up succinctly. As he fielded questions about the Gamecocks’ trip to the Belk Bowl, he pointed out something simple: South Carolina is a 7-5 football team, and that’s not what he’d prefer.
This season opened with high expectations. Maybe too high. Plenty of folks saw nine, maybe 10 wins on the schedule, one littered with rebuild jobs.
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At this juncture, USC is at that seven-win mark. It would be hard to argue that’s not a disappointment, considering the offensive pieces available and the coaching staff’s history on defense, but it’s maybe not the disappointment those nine- and 10-win projections would say.
At the outset, the bedrock of the lofty win projections was this: USC would finally get over the four-year Kentucky hump and a set of four rebuilds, plus a changing of the guard with Missouri’s offense would allow the Gamecocks to go 5-1 or 6-0.
Instead, there might have been some underrating of how quickly a power can bounce back with a good coach. USC went 3-3 in those games, with two close losses and three close wins.
▪ Kentucky made the jump many expected USC to, winning nine games and making the Citrus Bowl (would have won 10 if not for a weird Tennessee upset).
▪ Texas A&M went 8-4 in Jimbo Fisher’s first season, which was boosted by a late upset of LSU and holding on late in Columbia.
▪ Florida went from 4-8 to 9-3 and will play in the Peach Bowl, aided by coming back from down 17 against USC.
Had folks expected USC to face four teams of nine-win quality and two more eight-win teams, there might’ve been more caution. (Granted, the Gamecocks had the ability to knock each one down a win.)
South Carolina did grit out a win with a backup QB against a good Missouri team. It managed to snatch close victories against five-win squads Ole Miss and Tennessee.
But even with adjusted expectations, there are a few sticking points.
The best chance at a signature win was in Gainesville, and USC was in great position to do it. That would’ve salvaged eight wins and been a victory against a traditional power that was playing well.
But the Gators scored on their final three drives and USC could neither score nor move the ball.
The other sticking point was the schizophrenic way USC played through the first 5½ games. There were a litany of mistakes against Georgia, Kentucky and in the first half against Texas A&M, and even against Vanderbilt. (The Missouri game was an oddity in itself.)
That’s not to say USC would’ve beaten UK or UGA, but it likely wouldn’t have fallen behind 14-0 in the opening moments at home against the Bulldogs or 24-3 at halftime in Lexington.
That’s to say nothing of the game against the Aggies, when USC shot itself in the foot, went down 16-0 and didn’t have enough to complete the comeback.
So the schedule was harder than expected, but USC also didn’t play that well. The offense took half the season to get going, and by the time it did, injuries ensured the defense, which had its own issues, was in bad shape.
Perhaps history will be kinder, and the lofty expectations will recede as time passes. The three 11-win teams in a row from 2011 were at the time often looked at as a missed chance considering none produced an SEC East title, but that part of it seems to have waned.
In the end, it’s hard not to see 2018 as a disappointment of sorts, but not one quite so severe as the preseason expectations would say.