Will Muschamp is entering his fifth season at South Carolina. That may seem difficult to believe after November was marked by public declarations on his status by USC’s school president, Board of Trustees and finally the athletics director, and also after a 4–8 year in which every bit of trust and belief Muschamp had earned with a 9–4 season in 2017 vanished. Some mentioned a hefty buyout, while others mentioned USC’s lack of football history as a reason to keep Muschamp; but regardless of why, he’s back.
Only three USC assistants return in the same roles they had a year ago. The Gamecocks have a young roster with many question marks and another tough schedule. Is progress feasible?
“You know what? There’s more pressure internally than there is externally, I can assure you of that,” Muschamp says. “I don’t think we’re far off. I think we got some good, young talented players on our roster. We will be better moving forward.”
Previewing South Carolina's Offense for 2020
Mike Bobo is back in the SEC as USC’s new offensive coordinator, and he has already drawn raves for his assertive re-do of the playbook. Yet with a sophomore at quarterback who was derailed by health issues and loss of confidence last year (Ryan Hilinski) and a true freshman No. 1 running back (MarShawn Lloyd), what can Bobo really do?
The Gamecocks averaged 22.4 points and just under 372 yards per game last season. They scored only one touchdown in their final three games. They lost one of the most prolific wide receivers in school history in Bryan Edwards, as well as each member of a three-headed running back carousel.
The belief is that Lloyd can anchor the rushing game. He’ll be backed up by Kevin Harris and Deshaun Fenwick (a combined 290 yards in 11 games last year). The hope is that Colorado State transfer tight end/H-back Adam Prentice and returning tight end Nick Muse can give USC a 1-2 punch to address their lack of known quantities at receiver.
Shi Smith (43 catches, 489 yards) leads the receiver corps, but the rest are unproven. Of the top four pass catchers last year, only Smith returns. The next guy after him is Josh Vann, who caught 19 passes in nine games.
Previewing South Carolina's Defense for 2020
Emphasis on knocking the ball out resulted in 28 takeaways in 2017. The Gamecocks had 16 in 2018 and 17 last year.
Those numbers have to increase, and the Gamecocks feel they have the personnel to do it. The secondary returns many veterans, albeit not ones that have shown a specific knack for forcing turnovers.
Junior corners Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu could form one of the most dynamic defensive tandems in the league, while R.J. Roderick (safety) and Jammie Robinson (nickel) patrol the back end. The secondary will be the strength of the USC defense, although middle linebacker Ernest Jones (team-high 97 tackles last year) coordinates the entire group.
USC lost the NFL-bound Javon Kinlaw up front but can turn to Keir Thomas, a senior who missed nearly all of last year with an injury. Five-star recruit Zacch Pickens wasn’t heard from much last year but could enjoy a tremendous upswing this year. Muschamp got one of the biggest recruits in his tenure with five-star local end Jordan Burch, and Aaron Sterling (six sacks among 10 tackles for a loss) also returns.
The Gamecocks’ emphasis on takeaways often seemed to sap their ability to tackle last year. With two SEC veterans on the revamped staff (Tracy Rocker and Rod Wilson), that problem should be alleviated.
Previewing South Carolina's Specialists for 2020
Gone is one of the best punters in school history (Joseph Charlton), but placekicker Parker White returns after connecting on 18-of-22 field goals and all 25 of his PAT attempts last year. Smith could take over for Edwards on return duties, but the unit continues to search for an explosive playmaker like Deebo Samuel was in 2017-18.
The Gamecocks are also replacing their long snapper and holder, which seems minor. But if one of them messes up an assignment, it’s more fuel to add to the Muschamp pyre.
Nobody has definitively said Muschamp needs to have a substantially better year to return for a sixth season, but he knows that without it, his second chance at being the head coach of an SEC team will be his last. The Gamecocks — rocked with injuries, offensive inconsistency, a lack of defensive fundamentals and most of all, losses — have wrecked all the promise of that nine-win season two years ago.
The Gamecocks played the toughest schedule in the country last year, and while the slate doesn’t ease up in terms of opponents this year (Alabama was swapped out for a game at national champion LSU), the home-road breakdown does. USC starts with three home games before a tricky game at Kentucky and then a game at Florida. Home games with Tennessee and Texas A&M lead into a matchup at Vanderbilt.
If the Gamecocks are bowl eligible before November, Muschamp should be fine. If they’re not, a murderous month of Georgia, at LSU and at Clemson will be the final nails in the coffin.