Editor’s note: Saturday Down South’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series continues today with South Carolina. Saturday morning: Tennessee.

Not many 4-win coaches in Year 4 survive in the SEC. Not many 4-win coaches in Year 4 have buyouts near $20 million.

Will Muschamp is in a unique situation.

On one hand, the guy went into Athens and beat Georgia to pull off one of the biggest regular-season upsets of the Playoff era. He did that with his defense playing at an extremely high level. Does he still have his job without that win? I’m not sure, but it certainly did him some good to change the narrative in the middle of last season.

On the other hand, the Gamecocks had their worst season since 2015 when Steve Spurrier quit in the middle of the year. That’s a tough pill to swallow, especially when Georgia, Clemson and now even UNC are looking like they’re in much better shape for the next 5 years.

Of course, this isn’t a clearly defined issue for athletic director Ray Tanner, who gave Muschamp that wealthy extension after the 2017 season. Had Muschamp’s buyout been a penny last year, I’m not sure he’s still in Columbia. Not everyone is Florida State and can just shell out $18 million to fire a head coach.

That brings us to 2020 when South Carolina is once again staring at a gauntlet schedule. It’s brutal. Half of South Carolina’s games are against teams that are ranked inside of the top 13 of the AP Top 25. That doesn’t include teams like Kentucky and Tennessee, which are considered borderline Top 25 teams. Yikes.

But before we get to that schedule, let’s talk storylines.

Mike Bobo the savior?

What a 2020 sentence, right?

Go figure that Bobo, who had his good and bad moments at Georgia under Mark Richt — I’d argue there was much more good than bad — was considered a big fish to land this offseason. He left Colorado State for Columbia, where he took over an offense that was led by Bryan McClendon the past 2 years.

Now, it’s up to Bobo to turn around an offense that ranked No. 104 in scoring last year. He’ll do so with grad transfer Collin Hill from Colorado State and not returning starter Ryan Hilinski, as we found out on Thursday. Will that create some in-season back-and-forth with Muschamp? Possibly, especially if Hill doesn’t take off from the jump.

Things didn’t exactly get better during camp with the devastating season-ending injury to promising true freshman tailback MarShawn Lloyd. And just to make matters worse, OrTre Smith opted out.

But that’s not really an excuse for Bobo, who needs to find a way to maximize Hill’s potential. That is, assuming South Carolina is content to keep working out true freshman Luke Doty at receiver and not have him pose a legitimate threat to take over the starting quarterback job. Bobo’s group cannot look like the 2019 squad. It’s as simple as that.

Will Muschamp’s best South Carolina defense yet?

Yes, I believe it is, even after the Gamecocks lost Javon Kinlaw, who was the program’s best defensive player since Jadeveon Clowney. Part of that is because when you have a pair of solid corners in Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu, you’re set up to succeed pretty well in this modern passing era. That’s a good place to start.

The intrigue, of course, is in the front 7. Specifically, what happens with those young 5-star talents. Zacch Pickens is going to get more snaps without Kinlaw around after a decent, but relatively quiet freshman season. Pickens becoming an All-SEC guy as a sophomore would be a major boost to Muschamp’s defense.

Jordan Burch, on the other hand, is still getting his feet wet. He didn’t enroll early, which might not have mattered with this pandemic anyway, but South Carolina is pretty solid up front with underrated guys like Aaron Sterling back. Burch, who is a physical freak, still might be used as more of rotational guy in Year 1. Still, he and Pickens are the future.

There’s a realistic chance that the Gamecocks could finish in the top 1/3 of defenses in scoring, which they haven’t done since ranking No. 25 in 2017.

What should we make of Muschamp’s situation?

I’ll admit I’ve gone back and forth on this a bit. In the beginning of the offseason, I made a pretty clear outline of what I thought Muschamp’s level of expectations should be. Then the pandemic happened, the schedule changed, finances changed and I sort of rethought everything.

This isn’t a popular opinion for the anti-Muschamp crowd, but I’m not crazy about a team making any major decisions based on a pandemic season, either good or bad. Forking over a buyout of $12 million at season’s end seems rich given that universities nationwide are making significant salary reductions and furloughs.

This year is going to be so bizarre on a variety of fronts. We could see teams catch a contender at the right time because of a COVID outbreak and win a game they shouldn’t have. We could see teams that have most of their starting receivers gone for 3 games. We just don’t know.

And with expectations in Columbia so low because of this schedule, what are we really thinking is a bad season for Muschamp? Is it 2-8? And even if it is, why should the difference between 2-8 and 3-7 warrant a decision that’ll impact the program for the next decade?

South Carolina fans are in college football purgatory because I don’t think it gets better than what we saw in 2017, yet Muschamp’s buyout is still so rich. There might be a full 2 years in college football purgatory before Gamecock fans can get out.

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: vs. Tennessee (L)

Will this be close? Absolutely. Is there a chance that the Gamecocks could start the year by handing Jeremy Pruitt another season-opening loss? I wouldn’t doubt it. But I worry about that South Carolina offense against Pruitt’s defense. I think that group, which definitely has some key pieces to replace, is still in good shape to be one of the country’s better defenses after last year’s turnaround. It wouldn’t surprise me if both teams struggled to score and this was a “first to 20” situation. I’ll bet on Eric Gray and the Vols to get there.

Week 2: at Florida (L)

Welcome to 2020, where your new-look offense gets to face Pruitt and Todd Grantham in the first 2 weeks of the season. Have fun! The Gators are loaded with talented young edge-rushers who are ready to fill those voids left by Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga. Florida’s pass rush forces multiple interceptions and South Carolina falls to 0-2.

Week 3: at Vanderbilt (W)

Hey, now. A win in Nashville should certainly be in the cards. A Vandy quarterback room that’s entirely new will see a veteran secondary that’ll give it all sorts of problems. Even if this isn’t a big offensive day from Hill, I’d still expect perhaps a defensive touchdown or a special teams score to allow South Carolina to get some early breathing room to cruise to an easy win on the road.

Week 4: vs. Auburn (L)

Ah, that battle of the teams that brag about having the toughest schedule annually. An atypical matchup against each other should be at least somewhat interesting. I think the Gamecocks should hold up in the trenches better than some realize. But do I trust Hill to outsmart Kevin Steele’s defense? No. It wouldn’t surprise me if Roger McCreary picked off multiple Hill passes and really proved to be the difference in this one.

Week 5: at LSU (L)

I get that LSU lost a ton of production, but let’s not get too cute with this. The Tigers might be inexperienced with just 6 starters back, but by Week 5, I don’t expect youth to be an excuse. Myles Brennan still has plenty of weapons even without Ja’Marr Chase, and South Carolina is going to have to find ways to move the ball downfield against a secondary with Derek Stingley and JaCoby Stevens. In other words, I’m not holding my breath on Muschamp pulling off an upset in his old stomping grounds.

Week 6: Bye

Week 7: vs. Texas A&M (L)

This is the type of team that South Carolina could potentially catch at the right time. Coming off the bye week and with players possibly hitting the bye week and opting out or running into depth issues because of quarantine, perhaps the Gamecocks can hang around longer than some expect. Muschamp certainly knows Jimbo Fisher well. That’ll make this game a bit closer than some expect, but a late Jaden Wydermyer score will give A&M a nail-biter victory.

Week 8: at Ole Miss (W)

What do I have more faith in happening by Week 8 — Ole Miss’ defense figuring it out or South Carolina’s offense finding its identity? I’ll go with the latter. I’ll take those odds of happening whether it’s Hilinski or Hill starting at quarterback. This is a very winnable game for the Gamecocks, and that urgency will be there if a 1-6 start happens. A back-and-forth game winds up going in favor of South Carolina thanks to a timely late interception from Horn.

Week 9: vs. Mizzou (W)

A winning streak? Sure. Mizzou is a major mystery team because on one hand, you have a defense that was No. 16 in the country last year and returns legitimate All-SEC talent at every level. On the other hand, the guy who led that team is gone and the new coach has pretty significant turnover on offense. Eli Drinkwitz’s offense vs. Muschamp’s defense could be a better-than-advertised matchup. Another down-to-the-wire game goes in favor of South Carolina, but this time, it’s thanks to a Shi Smith touchdown grab.

Week 10: vs. Georgia (L)

Do you think Georgia is going to overlook this one after the way things went last year? I don’t. And an overhauled offense shouldn’t struggle so much like it did last year when Mukuamu stole Georgia’s lunch money and bought Sloppy Joes for the entire state of South Carolina.

Revenge game? Yep. That Georgia defense will take it personally, and I think this ends up being something like a 28-3 Georgia win.

Week 11: at Kentucky (L)

I’m the person who referenced Kentucky’s 5-year winning streak against South Carolina. To the Gamecocks’ credit, they ended that last season. Check one thing off the list. Granted, that was against a Kentucky team that had Sawyer Smith at quarterback. He’s not Terry Wilson, and now that the Wildcats have their offensive identity as a power running team that can still stretch the field when it needs to, I expect to see Kentucky start a new streak. That’d be just a brutal way for Muschamp to end the regular season.

2020 projection: 3-7, 5th in East


I’m not so rigid on the 3-7 because I believe the Gamecocks have about a 5-5 ceiling. I mean that. There are 3 games (Tennessee, Texas A&M and Kentucky) that could possibly swing in their favor via a key injury to the opposing team or a rash of quarantine players. That’s based on where their depth and talent stacks up.

But as of today, it’s hard to bank on those balls bouncing South Carolina’s way. The schedule is a gauntlet. There’s no getting around it. If the Gamecocks are going to have even a mediocre season, they’re going to have to win some games that they’re not supposed to. It’s as simple as that.

Bobo is the most important hire of the Muschamp era. If it works, Muschamp will be in the SEC Coach of the Year discussion. If it doesn’t, I don’t think Muschamp will get fired because of this pandemic, but I do believe he’ll be one of the closer things we’ve ever seen to a lame duck coach in the SEC come 2021.

Now would be as good a time as any to rise above some low expectations.