One of the last things South Carolina football coach Will Muschamp said to his team before it left Raymond James Stadium following a dramatic, come-from-behind 26-19 victory against Michigan in the Outback Bowl was this: “We’re going to win a championship, so get ready.”
Then Muschamp and the Gamecocks awoke Tuesday to see that two fellow SEC members – Alabama and Georgia – will be playing for the sport’s national title next week. It was a stark reminder of just how daunting Muschamp’s decree to his team – made in the postgame locker room and shared by the team’s social media team – is going to be to achieve.
Nonetheless, South Carolina is full speed ahead after upsetting the Wolverines, who were an eight-point favorite entering the game.
After the game, “I thanked the seniors, and I told the underclassmen, ‘When you come back in January, it’s all gas, no breaks. Let’s get ready to roll,’ ” Muschamp said. “You have to keep pressing forward. You have to stay hungry in everything you do, and that’s what we’re going to do in our program. Certainly, we have scratched the surface of what I think we can do.”
The Gamecocks finished the season 9-4 with the victory, notching three more victories than a 2016 season that had three more victories than the 2015 team. It is the first time South Carolina has had back-to-back, three-win increases in victories, and the win gave the team more than eight wins in a season for the seventh time.
South Carolina will return starting quarterback Jake Bentley, its four leading rushers, 13 of its top 14 pass catchers (including Deebo Samuel) and 13 of its top 20 tacklers (including Bryson Allen-Williams) next season. Seventy percent of the Gamecocks roster this year was comprised of freshmen and sophomores.
“I think (beating Michigan) just propels us even more,” said Bentley, the MVP of the game after throwing for 239 yards and two touchdowns. “Last year, there were a few weeks we had to get over the bowl loss and that mental block of, ‘Hey, we just lost our last game,’ but I think the guys are going to come back hungry. Now they know what it feels like to win a big bowl game, and they want more. That’s what we’re going to be trying to do.”
The Gamecocks held Michigan to 277 yards of total offense, including 74 on the ground, the Wolverines’ second-lowest rushing total of the season. South Carolina gained 300 yards, averaging 5.2 yards per play, slightly below its season average.
The Gamecocks trailed 19-3 until Rico Dowdle scored on a 17-yard touchdown run with 2:25 left in the third quarter.
“Not one guy on our offense got discouraged,” Bentley said. “Everyone had full confidence that we were going to come back and win. That’s what it takes.”
As of Monday evening, the Gamecocks had similar confidence they could come from behind from a standpoint against the current elite of the SEC.
Nine wins “says we have made progress,” Muschamp said. “It’s easy to point at tangible things and say, ‘This is good.’ It helps recruiting, obviously. It helps your fan base. We have to continue to move forward. The great thing about it is we are building.”