The comparison is looming. There’s no sense ignoring it.
In Year 3 of Will Muschamp’s time as the head coach of the University of Florida, a once-promising tenure took a turn in the wrong direction. The Gators were 11-2 in Muschamp’s second year there and finished the season ranked No. 9 in the country. They entered the 2013 season ranked No. 10, and the fan base loved its new coach. Florida finished 4-8 that season, missed a bowl game for the first time in 23 years, and nobody liked the new head coach anymore.
South Carolina is coming off a 9-4 season in Muschamp’s second year that exceeding anyone’s expectations and thus expanded everyone’s expectations entering this season – Year 3. The Gamecocks were just outside the AP Top 25 and predicted to finish second in the SEC East in the preseason. South Carolina loved its new coach and a “We knew Will Muschamp was a good coach all along” vibe wafted throughout the regional coverage of college football.
And now here we are.
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South Carolina is 2-2 overall and 1-2 in the SEC. The Gamecocks should be 3-2, which would feel a lot better than 2-2, but a September game against Marshall was canceled. They are only one game behind any realistic expectation for their season, and that’s because Kentucky is a good football team (undefeated and ranked No. 13 in the nation at the moment), which is something no one should be expected to expect. The sky has not fallen. There are no cracks in the foundation.
However, South Carolina played horribly against the Wildcats last week, bad enough that it’s understandable many among the fan base would think, “What the heck is going on here exactly?”
Two of the things going on are very similar to what happened in Muschamp’s third year at Florida. The 2012 Gators team that went 11-2 was plus-15 in turnover margin. The 2013 Gators team that went 4-8 was minus-two in turnover margin. Last year, the 9-4 Gamecocks were plus-11 in turnover margin. This year, they are minus-four. There are lots and lots and lots of in-depth statistical analysis these days. None of them are as determinative as this simple truth – teams that get turnovers win and teams that give them away lose.
The second parallel to the Florida situation is injuries. Eight Gators suffered season-ending injuries before October in 2013. Twenty starters missed snaps due to injury.
This South Carolina team has been hamstrung by defensive end D.J. Wonnum’s injury since the first game of the year. This week, quarterback Jake Bentley (knee), wide receiver Bryan Edwards (ankle), safety J.T. Ibe (knee), tight end Jacob August (concussion) and tight end K.C. Crosby (finger) all are questionable or worse, and that’s just the starters.
A 3-1 Missouri team that could beat South Carolina comes to Williams-Brice Stadium for a noon game Saturday. If the Tigers win, the Gamecocks will be 1-3 in league play and the volume of the noise around the program will increase. It’s already pretty loud. Sports radio airwaves and social media accounts are filled with what we’ll generously refer to as “concern” that the program is wobbling.
A word of warning to those considering joining the chorus. In some ways, Muschamp’s time at Florida never recovered from the psychic blow of that 2013 season. He lost many Gators that year and never got them back.
South Carolina fans pour money and emotion into the Gamecocks program. They have skin in the game, and they are allowed to feel however they want to about the results on the field and the people responsible for those results. However, there are some practical reasons that support not leaping into the Congaree just yet.
Momentum is a real thing in college athletics, within a game, within a season and within a program. The Gamecocks under Muschamp had it entering this season, but it’s in real danger of evaporating entering Saturday’s game. That’s scary for a fan base, especially one as perpetually put upon as South Carolina’s, but signing off on this team and turning on its head coach will only make things worse.