Why Saturday is actually more important for Mark Stoops than Will Muschamp
For a pair of SEC coaches sitting at 0-2, Saturday’s matchup is important. Duh. Tell me something I don’t know.
If you insist, I can do that.
Despite all the talk about Will Muschamp’s future at South Carolina, Saturday is actually more important for Mark Stoops.
Wait … what? Why? It’s not like Stoops has to worry about getting fired anytime soon. Muschamp, if you polled the average South Carolina fan right now, would probably have an approval rating of somewhere either in or at least near the toilet.
After all, it’s Muschamp who has 3 consecutive losses to Kentucky (Steve Spurrier also lost his final 2 games against the Wildcats before bowing out). That’s considered the ugliest demerit on Muschamp’s 3-year report card in Columbia. Surely another loss to the Cats on Saturday wouldn’t bode well for his public support … would it?
It certainly wouldn’t. Muschamp wants Saturday. Badly.
But in terms of how it’ll shape the rest of the year, I actually think that Stoops has more support to lose from suffering a defeat Saturday.
Relax, enraged South Carolina fans. I’ll explain.
After Saturday’s game against South Carolina, Kentucky has a bye. The next time it’ll play is a home game against woeful Arkansas on Oct. 12. That has “noon SEC kickoff” written all over it.
In the Bluegrass State, though, Oct. 11 is the date that’s circled on calendars. Why? That’s the night of “Big Blue Madness.” In other words, it’s when a basketball-focused state unofficially flips the calendar from the gridiron to the hardwood.
That’s not to say Kentucky wouldn’t have anyone show up to an Oct. 12 game against Arkansas. There are plenty of loyal fans who will support the program whether it’s 0-3 or 1-2.
But consider this scenario — Kentucky loses to South Carolina to fall to 0-3 in SEC play. It has a backup quarterback, a snoozer of a matchup and all of that “us against the world” juice is gone for the 2019 season. Heading into the home stretch of the recruiting calendar, Kentucky’s national optics are back to being a basketball school with a football team.
Is that fair to Kentucky? No. Is that accurate? No. Stoops’ team is better than its been given credit for. I’d actually argue that in the 8 quarters of SEC football they played so far, they were the better team in 5 of them. But does public perception care about that? As Stoops knows all too well, no.
If Kentucky starts 0-3 in conference play and already matches its SEC loss total from 2018, it would suggest that the preseason experts were right in that there was indeed a drop. They won’t give Kentucky a pass because it lost Terry Wilson to a season-ending injury. They won’t say “just wait until Kentucky runs the table in its 4 November games.”
It’ll just be “Kentucky is who we thought they were.”
South Carolina, on the other hand, is favored yet again for this matchup even though they’re also starting a backup quarterback (that won’t be lost on Stoops). Sure, if Muschamp loses, his team will be 1-4 with upcoming games against Florida and Georgia … with a trip to A&M and a home game against Clemson later.
Gamecocks fans, I’d think, have already resigned themselves to the belief that this team isn’t making a bowl game. Not with that start and that remaining schedule. That’s true with a win or a loss against Kentucky.
I believe that barring something even worse happening — South Carolina loses out, off-the-field problems, etc. — it’ll be 2020 that determines Muschamp’s future. If he’s fired before Dec. 31, his buyout is $22 million. (It drops to $18.6 million on Jan. 1.) That’s an insane check to write at a place that doesn’t have the standards of Alabama or Georgia.
If and when South Carolina trails on Saturday against Kentucky, that’ll be lost on people who are tweeting about firing Muschamp. They’re likely the same people who tweeted about that after the UNC game.
I get it. Muschamp, for all the credit he got for cleaning up Spurrier’s mess, has been horrendous against Top 25 teams (1-12), he lost as a double-digit favorite to lowly UNC and he can’t beat Kentucky. That’s a bad trio if you’re the head coach at South Carolina. But is beating Kentucky once really going to change anything for Muschamp? It’s not like that’s going to suddenly earn back a bunch of supporters.
That’s why I think Saturday is bigger for Stoops in his never-ending battle to win over the public. This is the same program that won 10 games as a Power 5 team last year, returned its starting quarterback and didn’t receive a single vote in the preseason AP Top 25.
As expected, Stoops didn’t want to dig into the outside perception of Saturday’s game with the surrounding circumstances — potential 0-3 start to SEC play, Big Blue Madness approaching, etc. — when I asked him about that.
“I think it’s important for us in our building and what we’re trying to do much more so than any outside perception,” Stoops said. “I think it’s pretty clear that we have a good football team and we have an opportunity to win a lot of games and we’ll continue to win football games. So the outside perception or whatever you’re asking there, not so important to me as it is what’s in our building within our players and within our coaches and with each and every opportunity.”
But while Stoops’ focus is internally, as it should be, he’s well aware of what’s at stake this weekend. An 0-3 start to conference play would be a tough pillow to swallow after the year that’s been.
Saturday just means a little more.