What Muschamp said about facing Alabama, former boss Nick Saban
Before the season started, much was made of South Carolina football’s brutal schedule for 2019. This Saturday, the Gamecocks take on one of the toughest teams on that slate — No. 2 Alabama. The Crimson Tide, led by legendary coach Nick Saban, have been college football’s top program over the past decade, and the Gamecocks are 25-point underdogs in their own stadium.
As USC looks to replicate 2010 and pull off the massive upset, here are the most important questions Carolina will look to answer this weekend.
Will Ryan Hilinski stay poised?
Expecting a true freshman quarterback in his second career start to replicate the kind of performance he had against Charleston Southern is unreasonable against a team like Alabama.
But Hilinski can still give fans reason for optimism just by staying cool in the spotlight and displaying the same leadership and enthusiasm he seemed to show against a lesser opponent like CSU.
Young quarterbacks don’t have a great track record against Alabama, which is to be expected — good defenses cultivated by Nick Saban give everyone trouble, and if you’re not confident and in control of your own offense, things can get ugly quickly. If Hilinski avoids that, it’s an encouraging sign for the future.
Can the offensive line hold up?
How Hilinski performs will depend in no small part on how his offensive line protects him. The Crimson Tide have a strong defensive front seven, including a preseason All-American in defensive lineman Raekwon Davis. The Gamecocks, meanwhile have already shuffled their offensive front this season to insert a pair of talented but inexperienced guards in Jovaughn Gwyn and Jordan Rhodes. Senior Donell Stanley switched positions as well.
Against Charleston Southern, it hardly mattered, as the Gamecocks had the size and strength alone to impose their will and ensure Hilinski didn’t face much in the way of pressure. Against Alabama, Hilinski will need all the time he can get. He hasn’t been sacked yet in college. That’ll almost certainly change Saturday, but it’s up to the O-line to limit the number of times it happens.
Is there any way to stop Tua?
Alabama QB Tua Tagovailoa is a strong contender to go No. 1 in the 2020 NFL Draft, and he’s started this season just like he did the last one — on record pace. He has transformed the Crimson Tide offense into a high-powered machine that only slowed last year in the face of injury and Clemson’s defense.
What makes him so dangerous, beyond his 69% completion rate, 7.63 touchdown-to-interception ratio and 196.1 passer rating, is his ability to extend plays with his legs. Tagovailoa isn’t a runner — he’s only rushed the ball for 371 yards in his career — but his athleticism will make life extremely difficult for the Gamecock pass rushers like Javon Kinlaw and D.J. Wonnum trying to bring him down and the defensive backs attempting to stick with receivers for long stretches of time.
Will any positive momentum be sustained?
The first two weeks have produced a whirlwind of emotions for Gamecock fans — first a humiliating defeat to North Carolina that had many inquiring about Muschamp’s buyout, then a shellacking of an over-matched opponent in Charleston Southern combined with the debut of Hilinski.
Week 3 could bring supporters plunging back to earth if Alabama does what it’s expected to do and routs USC. If that happens, South Carolina will have to give fans something to hang on to, any positive development they can point to as progress in a season that is far from over but has the potential to turn ugly if one or two games don’t fall the Gamecocks’ way.
Can a former assistant finally beat Nick Saban?
It’s gotta happen at some point, right?
Saban is a perfect 16-0 against his former assistants, including 2-0 against Muschamp from his time at Florida. That’s not a stat Muschamp would seem to put much stock in — he spoke extensively on Tuesday about approaching every game the same way — but it speaks to the iron grip Saban still has on the SEC.
And if South Carolina does pull off the miracle upset, Saban finally falling to one of his protege’s would hardly be the biggest story. But it would mark a significant milestone for Muschamp and college football as a whole.