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As losses vs. ranked teams mount, what exactly is Will Muschamp's ceiling?

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As losses vs. ranked teams mount, what exactly is Will Muschamp's ceiling?

November 13, 2018

SDS

When the clock hit zero in Gainesville on Saturday, reality set in for South Carolina.

Another ranked team, another loss.

The latest was even more crushing than usual after Will Muschamp blew a 17-point lead in the final 16 minutes against his former team. It marked the fourth time in as many games this year that the Gamecocks dropped to a ranked opponent, and it was actually the ninth consecutive loss to a Top-25 foe dating to 2016. Not since Muschamp’s first year in Columbia have the Gamecocks taken down a ranked team (and it was against Butch Jones, so there should probably be an asterisk on that one).

A 1-11 record vs. Top 25 teams in his first 3 years isn’t ideal. With a road trip to unbeaten Clemson in a couple weeks, the odds of that getting better before bowl season aren’t great.

As a result of that woeful record against quality foes, South Carolina hasn’t been recognized as one. The Gamecocks spent a total of 1 week of the Muschamp era in the Associated Press Top 25 … which ended when they got their teeth kicked in by Georgia at home in Week 2.

With Muschamp staring at a mediocre Year 3 that’ll ultimately fall short of high preseason expectations, the question is not about his job security. Someone a year removed from being an SEC Coach of the Year candidate doesn’t deserve that, especially if you look at what he inherited.

But it’s perfectly fair to ask the question now — what’s South Carolina’s upside with Muschamp?

One of my unpopular offseason takes was that I thought the Gamecocks overachieved in 2017 and that they were due for some regression. I repeatedly brought up the stat about going 6-1 in 1-score games. South Carolina only faced 2 ranked teams in 2017 and was outscored by an average of 19 points.

So yeah, even with all of that offensive talent returning combined with the upgrades to the offensive coaching staff, I questioned how South Carolina was going to take another next step. Muschamp’s defense was young and I thought the division would be tougher than it was last year.

That’s the thing that probably doesn’t sit well long-term with Gamecocks. With new coaches, Florida and Tennessee already look like they have higher ceilings than South Carolina. After all, the Gators and Vols each have multiple wins against ranked opponents this year. This year hasn’t exactly been a good sign that Muschamp’s group will rise above mediocrity in what looked like an extremely winnable division when he arrived.

There’s also the “here we go again” concern.

Muschamp, as many remember, took that major Year 2 leap at Florida. In Year 3, the Gators went from contender to 4-win team. Ultimately, he couldn’t get close enough back to contender status in Year 4 to warrant him keeping his job. Even he admitted that.

Obviously expectations at South Carolina aren’t that high and to be fair, the Year 3 drop-off won’t be nearly as drastic as it was in Gainesville. That’s why Muschamp shouldn’t be a “hot seat” candidate this offseason. But in the coming months, expect to see plenty people in the anti-Muschamp crowd throw these numbers out:

Will Muschamp First 3 seasons at Florida First 3 seasons at SC
Overall record 22-16 20-15
SEC record 13-11 12-12
Winning division records 1 1
Record vs. ranked teams 4-11 1-11

A look at those numbers and it’s natural to wonder just how high Muschamp’s upside is.

The other part of this that I haven’t brought up yet is the recruiting. Muschamp recruited well at Florida, and some argued that Jim McElwain’s consecutive division titles to start his tenure were a result of that. Maybe that’s true. It’s amazing to think that there were still players that Muschamp recruited who partook in Florida’s comeback win on Saturday.

Muschamp is in position to sign his fourth Top 25 class at South Carolina. If he can finish better than No. 18 — that’s where the 2019 class is ranked nationally — he’ll have one-upped South Carolina’s recruiting every year since he’s been there. The fact that he has commitments from blue-chip quarterback recruit Ryan Hilinski and 5-star defensive end and South Carolina native Zacch Pickens bodes well for this year’s class. Muschamp also signed an extension in January that’ll keep him under contract through 2023, which bodes well for him continuing to make strides on the recruiting trail (there’s still probably a ceiling of somewhere around No. 15 nationally given what Clemson is right now).

That’s the good news.

But the bad news is that until South Carolina starts beating at least some ranked teams, many will question how much the recruiting rankings really matter. In Muschamp’s 3 full recruiting cycles at Florida, he signed 3 top-9 classes, 2 of which were in the top 3. Still, when those recruits should have been the heart of his roster in 2013 and 2014, his teams were 1-6 against ranked opponents. That wasn’t just because of Muschamp’s quarterback issues.

That’s all in the past, though. There’s no guarantee that history repeats itself as South Carolina continues to rebuild its roster after Steve Spurrier let it deteriorate.

Let’s not forget that coming into this season, South Carolina was ranked No. 119 in percentage of returning defensive production. The Gamecocks do have promising young defensive players in the secondary who figure to be the backbone of an improved defense in 2019.

And while the Gamecocks still struggle to run the ball too much, one should feel better about the overall direction of the offense under Bryan McClendon and Dan Werner compared to the previous staff. That’s true regardless of if Jake Bentley returns for his senior season (I expect he will).

So what does that all add up to?

I honestly think that South Carolina’s ceiling is as a fringe Top 25 team that can beat at least 1 ranked foe per season. The Gamecocks simply don’t have the upside they did under Spurrier, which is fine. It doesn’t mean Muschamp is a bad coach and that he should be replaced. The fact that his arrival happened to coincide with Clemson and Georgia turning into juggernauts is going to continue to frustrate the fan base. If Florida sustains its place as a top-15 program as many expect it will, it’ll be even tougher for some to accept the Gamecocks playing second fiddle.

But keep this in mind: A little over 2 years ago, we were talking about a program that was off to a 2-4 start and looking like it was destined for its second consecutive season in the East cellar. Muschamp has indeed raised the expectations in Columbia.

Only time will tell if he can actually beat some quality foes and raise them again.

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Looking like the 2020 class could be the cream of the crop. All indications are looking good with a lot of 4 and 5-star players. Much needed. 2019 class is just a baby step, but 2020 could be different in a big way.

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