The typical path for a new football coach is to walk boldly and firmly down the path of lowered expectations, taking special care to step on and squash down any expectations that begin to sprout.
It’s the path of self-preservation. There’s little a coach can gain personally in letting his fans believe he has inherited anything other than a dysfunctional mess.
Will Muschamp has taken the other path.
South Carolina’s first-year head football coach said during a spring speaking tour stop that he believes “we’ve got good enough players here to win the (SEC) East.”
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Now, Muschamp did not say his team was going to win the SEC East or even should win the East, and he placed a lot of sensible caveats on his statement. Still, when you’re taking over a 3-9 football team that lost last year to The Citadel, anything north of holding group therapy sessions at Gamecock Club meetings can be considered rash optimism.
“If I didn’t believe it, I wouldn’t say it,” Muschamp said Wednesday during an SEC teleconference. “There are a lot of ‘ifs’ involved in that, but I do believe it and I’ve talked to our players about it. We need to go find a way to get it done.”
Muschamp spent a segment of his time on the teleconference listing all the “ifs” that must be answered affirmatively for the Gamecocks to still be contending even in October. A sampling of that list: “Starting at No. 1 the most critical position on your team which is quarterback … unknowns at the running back position … Deebo Samuel has 12 catches in his career and returning at that position we have a total of about six starts … a lot of unknowns at tight end … we have questions in the secondary.”
But he didn’t back away from his original stance.
“We’ve got a bunch of unknowns. Everybody has them at this point,” he said. “We have to have those things answered through the summer and fall camp. If we’re able to stay healthy because we are paper thin in some positions on our football team. But I do feel like we’ve got some ability, and we’ve got some guys that if we can stay healthy and these guys can continue to develop to get to that point.”
It’s tough to find anyone outside of Columbia who agrees with Muschamp. Tennessee, which is entering its fourth season under Butch Jones, is considered the runaway favorite to win the division. ESPN recently released something called a Football Power Index, a formula designed to predict the strength of each major college football team. The Vols were ranked fifth in the nation and first among SEC East teams. (South Carolina was ranked No. 39 nationally and fourth among SEC East teams.)
“We have very high expectations internally,” Jones said. “I think the expectations placed on this team, Team 120, are a direct correlation to the success at the end of the year of Team 119. This year’s football team has not done anything. They’ve not accomplished anything, so to me that is all noise. You have to prove yourselves every single day.”
Tennessee is such a prohibitive favorite that Florida coach Jim McElwain, who won the division in his first season last year, quipped: “I’m sure that they should be and they should beat the heck out of us. We’re just going to be lucky to show up.”
See, that’s how it’s done.