What I think it'll take for Will Muschamp to keep his job beyond 2020
Will Muschamp is going to be on every hot-seat list in existence this summer, and nothing I say or do will change that.
Why? An 11-14 mark over the past 2 years is, by any stretch, not what fans were hoping for. Perhaps his 8-figure buyout saved him in 2019 when he went 4-8. Or maybe it was the combination of the Georgia win and the ridiculously challenging schedule that tempered expectations.
Whatever the case, he appears to be entering a make-or-break year. And if you don’t believe that, perhaps you missed South Carolina losing 3 assistants after National Signing Day. For a team coming off a year like the one South Carolina had, that’s usually a good indicator that things are, um, nearing a breaking point.
Muschamp might be a “sitting duck” in the eyes of some, but there could be a way in which he keeps his job beyond 2020. Right? His buyout is down to $13.2 million if he’s fired after 2020. And while that schedule might not be quite at the level it was at last year, it’s still brutal. South Carolina has 7 games against teams that won at least 8 games last year.
So what would it look like for Muschamp to keep his job? I’ve got a few thoughts on that:
Ryan Hilinski stays healthy and becomes a top 5 SEC quarterback
Considering Muschamp’s history with quarterbacks, anything he can do to squash that fair narrative would certainly help. That much is obvious.
Coming off his knee surgery, Hilinski is expected to be healthy in 2020. How he matures in Year 2 as a starter could determine if South Carolina has a totally different season than what many (myself included) are projecting going into the year. Hilinski’s talent isn’t lacking, but the consistency is.
Some of his decision-making will improve with more reps. And Hilinski was also dealing with a banged up group of receivers, a struggling ground game and below average play-calling. If Hilinski succeeds in 2020 and reaches that new level, nobody will be blaming his surroundings. Instead, we’ll be talking about how the game is slowing down for him (in a good way).
That’s not just a numbers thing, either. We’ll see Hilinski lead 4th-quarter comebacks and be the unquestioned leader of the offense. He’ll win shootouts and his presence will prevent a 2-touchdown deficits from feeling insurmountable. Fitting balls into tight windows will be part of it, and perhaps he’ll have a coordinator who can scheme receivers open and make life a little easier on him.
Speaking of what it’ll take for Hilinski to get those big throwing windows …
That would make the Mike Bobo hire look smart
South Carolina was believed to have bested Georgia for Bobo’s services. It was a major victory. The more important victory would be if by season’s end, Bobo develops Hilinski, and South Carolina — not Georgia — goes through the more significant offensive transformation. I wouldn’t bet on that, but it would certainly show South Carolina AD Ray Tanner that Muschamp is capable of making a key hire to improve a weakness.
If you pay $1.2 million for a coordinator, it needs to yield positive results immediately. In Muschamp’s case, that’s obviously his reality.
I’d say improving that No. 74 passing offense and that No. 82 rushing offense would be a key place for Bobo to start. It’s not realistic to think those units will both suddenly vault into the top 20. But can those units actually be considered decent and not below average? The ground game, with 4 starters returning on the offensive line, is especially what needs to turn around in a hurry.
If South Carolina’s offense rises above expectations, Bobo’s SEC reunion will become one of the more relevant conference-wide storylines in 2020.
Jordan Burch is more than just a rotational player
Now that his bizarre recruitment is over, the 5-star defensive end’s arrival on campus will be well-documented. Duh. The program’s highest-rated recruit since Jadeveon Clowney is going to have major expectations. The loss of Javon Kinlaw magnified the need for a force on that defensive line, and if Burch becomes that in 2020, all the better.
Burch was such a major recruiting win for Muschamp after he fended off Georgia and LSU. In a make-or-break year, it’d be surprising to see Muschamp go the conservative route with the elite recruit. It might not be realistic to say that he needs to burst onto the scene like Derek Stingley did at LSU last year — obviously they play different defensive positions — but Burch becoming an All-SEC talent as a true freshman would be a feather in Muschamp’s cap.
Given Burch’s relationship with the Muschamp family, it would be a major factor working in his favor at season’s end if there is a decision to be made about his future.
That brutal finish to the schedule doesn’t include 3 blowout losses
Remember how I said that the schedule is still pretty brutal? I was mainly focused on November. The Wofford game is sandwiched in there, but the last 3 games against FBS teams on South Carolina’s schedule are home against Georgia, at LSU and at Clemson. Woof.
If each game is a blowout loss, that would clearly be the worst possible message to send to the South Carolina administration. But what about if the Gamecocks somehow pushed Clemson to the brink? Like, the Tigers have a 2015-like showing that makes it look like Muschamp’s team hasn’t given up on him? Something like that could carry a lot of weight.
(For what it’s worth, getting blown out by Clemson is by no means a sign that a program has given up. Dabo Swinney’s team usually gets everyone’s best shot. I’d expect that to be the case with South Carolina regardless of what the team’s record is.)
The scenario Muschamp absolutely has to avoid is going into November stuck on that 4-win mark. Anything above that is at least going to give him a fighting chance to reach the postseason because of the Wofford game. But I’m not convinced that 6 wins is the mark to reach for Muschamp to prove he’s the long-term guy.
7 wins or bowl eligibility clinched via one of those Georgia/LSU/Clemson games
Yeah, getting back to 2018’s 7-5 regular season would actually be an impressive feat given the schedule concerns. It would be a 3-win improvement, which isn’t easy to do in the SEC. That doesn’t happen unless those aforementioned variables wind up working in South Carolina’s favor.
Obviously not all 6-win seasons are created equal. If Muschamp earned a 5th win by taking down Georgia in the SEC home finale, you can bet that would send a loud message to the folks upstairs (that would all but guarantee bowl eligibility with the Wofford game remaining). Beating the cream of the SEC East crop matters.
But the more favorable scenario for Muschamp would be having bowl eligibility clinched on Halloween against Vandy. Could a 6-2 start be possible with this slate? You tell me:
- vs. Coastal Carolina
- vs. East Carolina
- vs. Mizzou
- at Kentucky
- at Florida
- vs. Tennessee
- vs. Texas A&M
- at Vanderbilt
I wouldn’t rule that out, but given how many unknowns are facing South Carolina (Hilinski’s Year 2 jump, how the defensive line reloads, the expected improvement of several East foes, etc.), I wouldn’t bet on it.
A 6-2 start would absolutely surpass preseason expectations. Muschamp’s time in Columbia could very well come down to how those expectations are managed. A couple of bad losses, a couple of key injuries of a couple of embarrassing headlines could be all she wrote. The margin for error is slim. Clearly.
It’ll take a lot more than a steep buyout to save Muschamp this time around.