Will Muschamp's first 3 years were better than Steve Spurrier's, but can he keep it going?
Will Muschamp is comfortably in his second stint piloting a program that Steve Spurrier once led to some of the best seasons in program history.
On the surface, it might seem that Muschamp is struggling to keep up with Spurrier’s accomplishments, both in recruiting and on-the-field results, overall and against the likes of rivals like Clemson. Spurrier’s South Carolina tenure is perhaps most known for the three consecutive 11-2 seasons, the 2010 SEC East title and a 5-0 stretch of double-digit wins against Dabo Swinney and Clemson. Not to mention four consecutive bowl victories. But all of that success started well into Spurrier’s stay in Columbia.
So, how to Muschamp compare to Spurrier’s first three years coaching the Gamecocks?
For starters, Muschamp recently received a contract extension, and his top assistants received raises.
With the Belk Bowl against Virginia on tap in Charlotte on Dec. 29, Muschamp is 22-16 and is the first Gamecocks coach to make a bowl game in each of his first three seasons.
You remember Spurrier with a slew of program-defining stars, like in-state recruits Stephon Gilmore, Alshon Jeffery, Jadeveon Clowney, D.J. Swearinger, Marcus Lattimore, A.J. Cann, DeVonte Holloman and Bruce Ellington. Or even out-of-state recruits-turned stars like Melvin Ingram, Connor Shaw, Ace Sanders, Mike Davis and Pharoh Cooper.
But for Spurrier, the groundwork was laid by the likes of Jared Cook, Kenny McKinley and Ryan Succop, who were some of the notable recruits in Spurrier’s first class in 2005. That first team under Spurrier made a name for itself with a 5-game winning streak midway through the season, all in conference play, punctuated with a win against No. 12 Florida, coached by Urban Meyer.
Similarly, but not quite to the same level, Muschamp’s first season featured wins over Tennessee and Missouri with new QB Jake Bentley. Bentley was part of a first recruiting class with other notable prospects like WR Bryan Edwards and RB Rico Dowdle, DE D.J. Wonnum and LB Javon Kinlaw. Each have made big plays already in their still blossoming careers.
Muschamp delivered a better second season than Spurrier in 2006, though the Head Ball Coach beat Clemson, the Gamecocks finished 8-5, with three SEC wins, and a win over Houston in the Liberty Bowl. Muschamp in 2017 finished 9-4 and 5-3 in the SEC, including a win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl. But aside from the ongoing issues with Kentucky, South Carolina again lost to Georgia and Clemson, a hill that will likely define Muschamp’s tenure in Columbia.
The topsy-turvy Spurrier tenure included QB Blake Mitchell being suspended after he was arrested for punching a bouncer in a Five Points bar, but he became one out of three quarterbacks in Gamecocks history to beat Tennessee, Florida, Georgia and Clemson in his career. Spurrier also brought in the others: Stephen Garcia and Connor Shaw. Bentley still has plenty of work cut out for him in those areas.
In Spurrier’s third season, there was a glimpse of a troubled ending. The Gamecocks started 6-1 but lost five straight down the stretch and missed a bowl game. Muschamp, meanwhile, landed a 5-star defensive end and a quarterback for the future as the crown jewels of a solid recruiting class. The Gamecocks drew national attention with their performance at Clemson, though it didn’t deliver a victory, it showed optimism for the coming years.
Here is a breakdown of how Spurrier and Muschamp compare in their first three seasons:
Spurrier: 21-16 (1-1 in bowls)
Muschamp: 22-16 (1-1 with Belk Bowl pending)
Recruiting rankings (247Sports Composite)
Spurrier: 18th overall, 6th in SEC (2005), 33rd overall, 9th in SEC (2006), 7th overall, 4th in SEC (2007).
Muschamp: 25th overall, 10th in SEC (2016), 21st overall, 8th in SEC (2017), 18th overall, 7th in SEC (2018).
The one difference Muschamp must contend with is the consistent recent dominance of Clemson being in the top 5 nationally, something Spurrier never had to contend with, partially to his credit. Muschamp has yet to come within striking distance of beating Georgia, while Spurrier beat Mark Richt in his third season, in Athens, no less.
There’s only been four times since Spurrier took over that South Carolina beat Clemson and Georgia in the same season. Even before Spurrier’s retirement season when he registered 2 wins, he averaged 7.2 wins in his non-11-2 seasons. Interestingly, Muschamp is averaging 7.3 wins per season, with the Belk Bowl pending.
Sure, Muschamp could pull off the rare double dip of beating Clemson and Georgia in the same season, likely on the strength of big games from Zacch Pickens and Ryan Hilinski. But the more likely scenario is a string of seasons with win totals in the 7 to 10-win range.
Spurrier set the highest bar any coach in program history has. Muschamp cleared it through 3 years, but the challenge is about to rise.