No matter what coach Will Muschamp has said, the third-year coach has the Gamecocks on a positive trajectory.
Sure, there are strides to be made against Clemson and much of the SEC East, but Muschamp has lifted South Carolina to unprecedented levels.
He’s the first South Carolina coach to start with three consecutive bowl appearances and, with 22 victories, has more than any coach in the first 3 years. Always a coach to deflect any success, Muschamp before the Akron game told his team to treat the extra week of game practice as a rehearsal for next year in preparing for a SEC title game.
The sloppy finish — with four turnovers — still couldn’t derail the Gamecocks’ 7-5 season following a 28-3 win over Akron.
Here are 10 things we’ll remember about the Gamecocks from 2018:
1. Deebo Samuel’s versatility
When Deebo Samuel recovered a fumbled punt in the end zone against Akron, it highlighted his versatility for the Gamecocks.
Known as a big-play receiver on offense, Samuel’s career will be remembered for 16 receiving touchdowns, 7 rushing scores, 4 kickoff returns for TDs and that fumble return against the Zips.
Samuel’s recovery gave him 12 TDs this season, and he added another TD catch later in the first half, which tied him with Sidney Rice (2005) for fourth on the career list. They’re behind Marcus Lattimore 19 (2010), Harold Green 16 (1987) and George Rogers 14 (1980).
2. Jake Bentley’s career day against Clemson
Bentley passed for 510 yards, including more than 300 in the first half alone, and 5 touchdowns.
The yardage total was the most in school history against any opponent, and broke Steve Taneyhill’s mark of 473 yards passing against Mississippi State in 1995. Over his past four games before Akron, Bentley threw for 1,451 yards and 13 TDs and just 2 interceptions.
The recent play has revived talk of turning pro after this year.
3. Deebo Samuel vs. Deandre Baker
Back when South Carolina was considered a dark horse candidate to win the SEC East, Samuel was asked about his key matchup with Georgia DB Deandre Baker. Georgia was ranked No. 3 at the time, and South Carolina hosts one of its biggest games in years on Saturday, when No. 3 Georgia comes to town for a game many believe will decide the SEC East title.
Samuel made it clear he didn’t know who Deandre Baker is when asked about him.
“Who?” Samuel responds when asked about Baker. “Oh, I really ain’t watched much of him.”
Samuel was held to 6 catches for 33 yards in a 41-17 loss.
4. ‘Street fight’ fuels motivation
Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason wore a mechanic-themed shirt to his press conference that week in September to preview the matchup with South Carolina.
“This will be a street fight … I relayed that to our group,” Mason said. “They know what a street fight is. They understand as soon as you say, ‘Ding, ding, ding’ it goes. We’ll be ready to play. They will too, so let’s go.”
After South Carolina won 37-14, Gamecock players said they took Mason’s comments personally and wanted to show they were not going to lay down two weeks after they lost to Georgia.
5. Scarnecchia beats Missouri in heavy rain
QB Michael Scarnecchia made his first college start in place of Bentley, who was out with a knee injury.
Scarnecchia passed for 3 touchdowns and, combined with Parker White’s last-second field goal, South Carolina won 37-35 over Missouri.
Scarnecchia, who was on the team since 2014, certainly will be remembered for how he played in the weather-delayed game that took more than five hours to finish. Coaches headsets malfunctioned in the rain, and because of that, offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon coached the last part of the game from the field, a move that would play out the rest of the season.
6. Akron replaces Marshall after Hurricane Florence
South Carolina beat Akron 28-3 at home on Saturday to make up for its September game canceled because of Hurricane Florence.
South Carolina was scheduled to face Marshall on Sept. 15, but called the game off in midweek as the one-time Category 4 storm approached the North and South Carolina coast. The storm was blamed for the deaths of at least 49 people across several states.
Akron was available because its Sept. 1 contest at Nebraska was canceled due to lightning.
7. Kentucky losing streak grows
The Gamecocks gave up 21 points in the second quarter in a 24-10 loss, which extended the losing streak against Kentucky to 5 games. The Wildcats were still undefeated at the time, but the Gamecocks fell to 1-2 in the SEC.
Bentley had a season-high 3 interceptions, and there was also a fumble by South Carolina. It was a chippy game with several penalties after the whistle. The teams each had 11 penalties for a combined 209 yards.
8. Bentley defeats Tennessee despite home boos
The Williams-Brice Stadium faithful voiced their displeasure with Bentley’s play early in the eventual 27-24 win over Tennessee.
The fans were upset with his recent sluggish play against Texas A&M, how the team won without him against Missouri and his injury against Kentucky.
Muschamp said the criticism comes with the job, and Bentley shrugged the comments off.
“I’ve had great teammates who’ve lifted me up the past couple of weeks,” Bentley said. “But it’s our job to come out here and win.”
Gamecocks stopped Tennessee on downs twice in the fourth quarter to rally from 12-points down. The game will also be remembered for a controversial fumble that wasn’t reviewed. Tennessee seemingly caused a fumble of Ty’Son Williams, and could have returned it for a 99-yard touchdown. Instead, the Gamecocks were credited with the touchdown with five seconds left in the third quarter.
9. Blown lead at Florida
The Gamecocks ultimately lost at Florida, 35-31, in a game where they led 31-14. Muschamp fell to 0-2 in Gainesville against his former team. It was the team’s fifth consecutive game decided by 4 points or fewer, and second loss in those.
This was the last season for any Gators who were there before Muschamp left. There were six remaining fifth-year seniors. Florida in November also fulfilled the severance, a final payment of $787,500 that completed his $6.3 million buyout.
10. A season of injuries
The Gamecocks had a flurry of injuries on defense, from D.J. Wonnum who missed several weeks early in the season, to the secondary, which had just about every player sit out at least briefly.
Against Chattanooga, the Gamecocks had such a hit to their depth that they put in walk-on Jason Senn at safety after Jaycee Horn limped off in the first half. Senn’s performance on Senior Night was the stuff of the silver screen. A former Beaufort High School standout, he traveled some two hours for almost every Gamecock home football game.
But the 5-8, 185-pounder made 3 tackles and played the majority of the game in place of starting safety Steven Montac.