The critics first circled in December when Will Muschamp was hired as what some believed was South Carolina’s second or third choice to replace Steve Spurrier.

Exhibit A was his poor record as head coach at Florida, including a 10-13 finish that followed an 18-8 start. On the flip side, the Gamecocks had nowhere to go but up after their own 1-5 finish last season, which included a loss to Citadel.

Then there was a 2-4 start this season, punctuated by Georgia gashing the Gamecocks for 326 rushing yards and two touchdowns.

“You’re 2-4, and the negativity is amazing,” Muschamp told reporters after the Missouri win Saturday, a win that moved the Gamecocks within one game of bowl eligibility. “But you just keep believing.”

And tweaking.

Almost out of nowhere following a bye week, Muschamp sprinkled in some personnel changes — most notably at quarterback — and all of a sudden Muschamp and the Gamecocks have strung together a three-game winning streak over UMass, Tennessee and Missouri, the first such streak for the program since 2014.

The streak has been fueled by recruits signed by Muschamp, and mostly by those unheralded or destined for redshirt seasons this year.

Jake Bentley, the phenom freshman quarterback, is playing what should be his high school senior season as a true freshman. Rico Dowdle, at least third string running back to start the season, has become the feature back. And Bryan Edwards a budding contributor at receiver. All have played key roles in the winning streak.

In South Carolina’s first six games, it never scored more than 20 points, but since the offensive shakeup, it’s averaging nearly 30 points per game.

Bentley has been as surprisingly good. He’s completing 73 percent of his passes, averaging 200-plus yards per game. He’s thrown six touchdowns without an interception.

And he’s brought a sense of excitement to the huddle.

Oct 22, 2016; Columbia, SC, USA; South Carolina Gamecocks quarterback Jake Bentley (4) passes against the Massachusetts Minutemen in the second half at Williams-Brice Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

“The (players) have kept fighting,” Muschamp told reporters after the Tennessee game. “They’ve kept believing. Our fan base has been unbelievably positive about everything we’re trying to do. We haven’t arrived, but this is a good win for us. We needed this.”

After the Missouri win, he again credited the players.

“They’re the ones that didn’t quit,” he told reporters. “Still a long way to go, though.”

Those players are largely underclassmen as 78 percent of the roster is freshmen or sophomores, which could set a foundation for a quick long-term turnaround.

Part of his inheritance was a defense that was last in the league in scoring defense in 2015 at 27.5 points per game. And its best player, linebacker Skai Moore, is out the entire season with a neck injury.

But the Gamecocks have yet to allow more than 30 points in a game this season and before the Missouri game were ranked No. 46 in the nation in total defense, a stat they finished 95th in last season. They’re sixth in the SEC in scoring defense this year.

“We haven’t given up the huge, easy, cheap scores, and we’ve been pretty opportunistic with turnovers,” Muschamp said.

Remarkably, a series of scenarios exists where South Carolina could still win the East, a possibility almost no one outside of the football facility thought was possible in August. It starts with beating Florida this week, and additional losses for Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida.

“I’m not very good at math,” Muschamp said after the Missouri win. “I don’t want to get into all that. We just need to worry about our next ballgame.”

The next ballgame is Muschamp’s former employer — Florida — which he refused to discuss in multiple interviews Saturday night.

Win the “Muschamp Bowl” in Gainesville, and this turnaround would be truly something to talk about.