It only took two weeks for the dark horse season to turn into a disappointment. South Carolina’s hopes to upset Georgia in the SEC East never materialized.
It wasn’t until early November that the Gamecocks strung together two straight wins, and those wins were over Tennessee and Ole Miss — teams which won a combined three SEC games.
If those games weren’t the high point of the season, it had to be the rain-drenched, lightning-delayed win over Missouri as backup QB Michael Scarnecchia passed for 249 yards and three touchdowns. That briefly touched off a quarterback controversy.
Nationally, South Carolina drew positive attention by putting up 35 points in a loss at Clemson as QB Jake Bentley passed for 510 yards and five touchdowns.
By then, the season was defined by a series of streaks. The loss was the fifth straight to the archrival Tigers, which came about two months after South Carolina’s fifth straight defeat to Kentucky. Quite a fall for a team picked to finish second in the SEC East in the preseason, with eight first-place votes.
But the Belk Bowl seemed like, at worst, an even matchup against Virginia of the ACC. However, last week’s game quickly unraveled as South Carolina was shut out for the first time in a bowl and first time overall since 2006 against Georgia. Virginia scored a touchdown in each of the four quarters and held the ball for 42:35, while South Carolina held it for just 17:25 in a 28-0 defeat.
Several Gamecocks starters were injured and leading WR Deebo Samuel sat out to prepare for the NFL Draft. South Carolina had six true freshmen on the field at once, and A.J. Turner moved from running back to the secondary. Defensive backs Rashad Fenton and Steven Montac did not play in the second half, and there’s at least some question as to why.
With each loss, almost on a timed cue, Muschamp would accept the blame, and often said some variation of, “It’s on me. I take the blame. I didn’t do a good enough job of coaching them up.”
After the Belk Bowl, Muschamp tamped down concerns, and struck an optimistic tone.
“We’ll be fine,” he told reporters. “We’ll get back to campus and get started on having a great offseason program. We’ll be fine. Our guys will be ready to work in January.”
QB Jake Bentley is good enough to at least consider his NFL future after a third season starting at quarterback. But he also led the SEC in interceptions (14) and had four games where he threw at least two picks. Bentley, of course, shouldn’t shoulder all of the blame for the team’s offensive struggles. Receivers dropped more than a few passes throughout the season, including several against Virginia.
One dose of reality is the program’s history. Muschamp has won 22 games over three seasons, the most of any South Carolina coach in that span, and gone to three straight bowl games (but lost two). Muschamp will always be measured against Steve Spurrier. For now he is still in Spurrier’s shadow because he has not beaten Clemson or Georgia. And this season’s loss to Florida was one of the worst of the season.
Much like this season, it is difficult to find a signature win for Muschamp in Columbia, as he has just one win over a ranked team (2016 against No. 18 Tennessee).
Realistically, the Gamecocks program seems to be balancing frustration and tempered excitement. There are highly touted recruits coming, and upgraded facilities, but the third-year coach just finished fourth in the SEC East.
A season that began with the motto, “All gas, no brakes” ended as if the program leaked oil before running out of gas.