The scene at the end of the game in Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday night was unusual to say the least.
Minutes after the chant of “ASU! ASU! ASU!” echoed through the stadium from the Appalachian State fans, those same people were bellowing for their defense to hold off South Carolina in the waning moments. Bryan Edwards broke wide open, but the pass from Ryan Hilinski was just a little too far and Edwards couldn’t quite get under it as the clock hit 0:00.
And as Will Muschamp pointed out after the game, the offensive holding penalty on the play would have negated a big catch anyway.
The host Gamecocks (4-6) spent the evening brutally undermanned, but four weeks removed from the upset of No. 3 Georgia that shocked the college football world, they were unable to muster much offense against a strong team from the Sun Belt Conference.
And this brings South Carolina to the point of uncomfortable questions about the Will Muschamp era.
Had they won Saturday, they’d end up at worst 5-7. That’s not good, but their schedule at year’s start seemed to have a seven-win ceiling — and that was before playing a freshman quarterback and losing five of their top seven skill players to injury.
That’s probably in the forgivable range. With the size of Muschamp’s buyout, to get five wins against that schedule with the personnel issues would be well within range of a mulligan and a give-it-a-try-next-year moment.
But 4-8? That would make things murkier.
If Saturday was any indication, beating Texas A&M next week would be near miraculous, and beating Clemson in the finale would require everything short of actual divine intervention. That’s just the way things are right now.
If South Carolina ends up 4-8, that’s a record that requires a lot more forgiveness. Coaching is a results-based business. There are feelings, expectations, all that, but eight losses in Year 4 is bad on any and every front.
To a degree, it might not matter. Muschamp’s buyout checks in at $19 million — that’s the most South Carolina would owe him if the school opts to make a change (because of mitigation, whatever he is paid at his next coaching job comes out of that payout). Florida State paid nearly that to get rid of Willie Taggart midseason, and had to rally top boosters to get it done. That’s with everything sliding down around the Seminoles program.
Barring some tremendous moment of digging deep, Muschamp would likely have to play a part in his own departure, taking less to move on. That’s another wrinkle and another unknown.
At the moment, the Gamecocks are staring down their worst season since 2015 — the year before Muschamp arrived — and the second-worst since 0-11 in Lou Holtz’s first year.
After the game, South Carolina Athletics Director Ray Tanner didn’t make any notable public comments on the situation. A few reporters approached him. The conversation was short. Tanner isn’t often one to discuss such situations in that kind of public setting.
Muschamp has done a lot of good in his time in Columbia. He overachieved in his first two years. He’s raised the overall talent level on the roster from where it badly fell at the end of the Steve Spurrier era. He has things going well in the classroom and on the discipline front.
But there’s that looming possibility of 4-8. If he is retained, it means some mix of a prove-it year and some faith he can get things back on stable ground. If this year were to become a breaking point, it would mean a massive payout, a coaching search in a year where the candidate pool doesn’t seem deep and at least two national powers will likely open (FSU already and Southern Cal could). Neither side of it comes without an array of concerns.
When all is said and done, there will be more uncomfortable questions ahead.