This Jake Bentley decision feels like a defining moment for Will Muschamp at South Carolina
No, it didn’t surprise me.
Will Muschamp’s decision to start Jake Bentley instead of Michael Scarnecchia after the latter balled out last week against Mizzou might have caught some off guard, but whether the decision was right or wrong, we probably should have seen it coming.
To be clear, that’s not my way of saying Bentley is undoubtedly the better quarterback.
Scarnecchia was the one who threw for 200-plus yards, 3 touchdowns and 0 interceptions against a Power 5 team, which is something that Bentley has yet to do in 24 career starts. That was after 3 Power 5 games in 2018 wherein Bentley averaged 6.6 yards per attempt and threw 6 interceptions, which contributed to a pair of double-digit losses to SEC East foes.
That’s why many assumed that Muschamp would ride the hot hand, regardless of Bentley’s health. Instead, much to the chagrin of plenty of Gamecocks fans, Muschamp announced that a healthy Bentley would be South Carolina’s starter on Saturday.
“Well, (Jake’s) played a lot of really good football for us. He’s got a lot of experience and I think he’s played really well,” Muschamp said Wednesday. “Obviously, Mike has a smaller sample size, played well with his opportunity, but I’m making a decision on what I think helps us win and at the end of the day, that’s what we are going to do. We have two guys we have confidence we can win with, I feel comfortable with both guys.”
I’ll agree to disagree that Bentley “has played really well” this year, but that’s beside the point. The point is that this quarterback decision feels like a defining moment for how Muschamp’s perception in Columbia is going to be shaped moving forward.
It’s not lost on anyone that, even as a defensive coach, Muschamp carried the stench of failed quarterback decisions with him to South Carolina.
His handling of the quarterback room at Florida was, um, not good. Gators fans are still scarred by Muschamp not knowing what he had in Jacoby Brissett or not maximizing the talent of 5-star quarterbacks like Jeff Driskel and John Brantley. Once upon a time, Muschamp even had Heisman candidate Will Grier on his roster. Muschamp only lasted 4 seasons in Gainesville in large part because of his inability to properly evaluate and develop the position.
It probably didn’t help that in Muschamp’s first year at South Carolina, blue-chip quarterback recruit Brandon McIlwain struggled out of the gates as a true freshman and announced that he was leaving for Cal at season’s end. McIlwain is now, of course, starting at Cal.
The list of talented quarterbacks who struggled with Muschamp as head coach and ultimately transferred is lengthy.
The last thing Muschamp wants to do is add Bentley to that list.
After all, it was Bentley who eventually beat out McIlwain for the starting job in Muschamp’s first year in South Carolina. Bentley was the one who, despite his struggles throughout the second half of 2017 — he had 6.3 yards per attempt with a 4-6 touchdown-interception ratio in his final 6 regular season games — was unquestionably the guy.
And don’t forget that at season’s end, it wasn’t Bentley who took the fall for South Carolina finishing 108th in yards per game. Kurt Roper was fired as offensive coordinator and Muschamp promoted Bryan McClendon to increase the tempo of an offense that ranked No. 120 in offensive plays per game. The Gamecocks also brought in former Ole Miss offensive coordinator Dan Werner to coach up Bentley.
“I just think we need to be more productive, at the end of the day,” Muschamp said when he made the move last year.
Obviously. By firing the offensive coordinator and changing schemes with the same starting quarterback, Muschamp might as well have said, “I’m determined to make Bentley my first franchise quarterback, and I’ll do whatever I can to put the right people around him to make sure he succeeds.”
I say “franchise” quarterback because Bentley has been billed as the face of the Gamecocks. He’s a team captain, he was a team representative at SEC Media Days as a sophomore (that rarely happens anywhere) and he’s regularly available to speak to the media. That’s pretty much been the case since Bentley had those impressive first 3 starts in the middle of 2016 when he replaced McIlwain and Perry Orth.
Well, Bentley wasn’t available to speak to the media in 2016 because Muschamp has a rule preventing freshmen from doing so. But that didn’t stop Muschamp and South Carolina players from raving about Bentley’s poise and how the offense wasn’t limited anymore.
That’s still relevant because that 3-game winning streak after South Carolina started the season 2-4 gave Muschamp the sample size he needed to see to invest in Bentley as his guy. Based on how we’ve seen Muschamp handle this situation, it’s apparent that he’s still a believer that Bentley’s best days are ahead and that he hasn’t — dare I say — regressed from his freshman year.
Time will tell if Bentley can start thriving in McClendon’s new offense. It didn’t take Scarnecchia long to do that.
With McClendon’s offense, a healthy Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards, it’s hard to argue that the pieces outside of Bentley are lacking anymore. Whether Bentley will be the guy to maximize this offense remains to be seen.
Either way, though, this is a defining decision for Muschamp. If he’s right, he’ll continue on the trajectory that he was on after leading South Carolina to consecutive 3-win improvements in his first 2 seasons in Columbia.
But if he’s wrong, this will add more doubt to whether he can overcome his quarterback evaluation woes and truly become an established SEC coach.
I think Muschamp knows that. I think South Carolina fans know that. Soon enough, we’ll find out if Muschamp went all in on the wrong guy.