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Is South Carolina’s 8-4 season a mixed bag?

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In which I try to figure out why an eight-win season has left me pleased, but also feeling like it was a bit of a missed opportunity.

COLUMBIA, SC - NOVEMBER 11:  Taylor Stallworth #90 of the South Carolina Gamecocks high-fives fans after their game against the Florida Gators at Williams-Brice Stadium on November 11, 2017 in Columbia, South Carolina. South Carolina won 28-20.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images) Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

The South Carolina Gamecocks are 8-4, one season after finishing 6-6 and two years removed from a 3-9 campaign we’ve all been in a hurry to put behind us as soon as it happened.

In the preseason prediction thread, I felt pretty strongly about my belief this was a 6-6 team, possibly 7-5 at best with a bowl win or conference upset (I was right about beating Florida, at least!). At the time, South Carolina’s schedule looked daunting: It featured a season-opener against a highly-regarded N.C. State squad in Charlotte; road games against Georgia, Texas A&M, Tennessee, and a potentially tricky Missouri team; and a dang triple-option outfit in Wofford.

So, the Gamecocks are 8-4. That’s great! But why does it also feel underwhelming?

One thing I noted in my prediction was that I expected South Carolina to be much improved in 2017; it just wouldn’t show in the record, given the rugged nature of the schedule. Instead, it feels like the opposite occurred: South Carolina’s schedule ended up not being particularly challenging, and the team’s mediocre-to-good performance is cast in a poorer light as a result.

I’m not trying to be a prisoner of the moment. That fourth consecutive loss to Clemson (and second straight blowout) put a damper on the end of the season to be sure, but I know it’s most important to pull back and consider the bigger picture. The problem is that when I look at the bigger picture, I’m still seeing a middling team — just one that got some more breaks.

Consider the Gamecocks’ victories this season, and how they played out. First, the fun ones: N.C. State (back-and-forth with exciting plays; USC’s best win by a mile), Missouri (another Deebo Samuel kick return and some offensive fireworks; this win aged unexpectedly well), and Arkansas (the type of total annihilation against an SEC team we hadn’t seen in a while). The rest? A 15-9 clunker against Tennessee that came down to the final seconds, a 17-16 horror show against Louisiana Tech that came down to the final seconds, a 28-20 comedy of errors against Florida that came down to the final seconds, and a 34-27 adventure against Vanderbilt that came down to the final minute. (Yes, there was also a 34-10 win against Wofford that was surprisingly stress-free, and I’ll give some credit for that. But at the end of the day, it’s still Wofford.) Three of those wins also came against teams that were embroiled in coaching controversy and on the verge of collapse.

It’s true that a year ago, and especially two years ago, the Gamecocks were losing a lot of those close games. I’m sure the knee-jerk reaction to this is, “Hey, a win’s a win, and that’s a lot better than a loss.” I agree. While South Carolina got some breaks, I’ll certainly take them — luck is part of the game, and I would’ve eagerly signed on the dotted line if someone offered me an 8-4 Gamecocks squad this season. But it was still difficult to watch South Carolina hanging on for dear life against the likes of Louisiana Tech, or even against a Florida team that was in complete disarray by the time the Gamecocks faced them. (It also goes without saying that a fourth consecutive loss to Kentucky is, to put it mildly, unacceptable.) This season, by some metrics, was a success, but it also feels like a mixed bag.

The Gamecocks have made progress, and I’m not unhappy with coach Will Muschamp. 8-4 is a good record for South Carolina, especially under the present circumstances; I’m not trying to compare this squad to the ultra talented 11-win teams, or some other unreasonable benchmark. The Gamecocks still have a shot at nine wins with a bowl victory. And speaking personally, a bowl win would go a long way toward cementing this season as a success. Hopefully South Carolina can regain some momentum before heading into the offseason.