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Muschamp, Gamecocks find themselves at a different crossroads

Was last week in Athens a fluke, or is there something to build on?

Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

So that happened.

By now, we all know the story, although of course it’s fun to tell it and hear it again: The unranked South Carolina Gamecocks, a 25-point underdog left for dead by many in the college football world including their own fans, took down undefeated and then-No. 3 Georgia in Athens, prevailing 20-17 in double overtime.

What a difference a week makes — especially for coach Will Muschamp.

It’s fair to say Muschamp entered Georgia Week as a persona non grata for many in Columbia. The “most talented” USC team he’s had — in his own words — was 2-3 (1-2 SEC), and while the Gamecocks had finally beaten Kentucky for the first time in five years, the season was not exactly going as expected. A deflating opening loss to North Carolina rocked Gamecock Nation, especially with the resulting injury to veteran quarterback Jake Bentley, and a miserable defeat to Missouri soured the season further.

Seemingly right out of the gate, South Carolina had already dropped two of its most winnable games with a schedule that wouldn’t provide for many. The Gamecocks were in the difficult and unenviable position of needing to upset a ranked team just to reach a.500 mark and therefore bowl eligibility, with the most likely candidate being this week’s home game against Florida — and the Gators are a top-10 team.

But then the Gamecocks achieved the impossible in Athens, netting the second-biggest win in school history (and tying their biggest accomplishment on the road, previously an upset of a No. 3 North Carolina team), and doing it all with a true freshman quarterback and then the third-string backup. Suddenly and unexpectedly, the path to the postseason looks easier. (As an aside, is there anything more Gamecockian than losing to a double-digit underdog and then later upsetting an undefeated, top-5 team as one? As ever, good luck figuring this program out.)

Muschamp’s future with the Gamecocks looks more clear, too, now that he’s finally captured that elusive signature win and ended his lengthy drought against Top 25 competition. Even the most bloodthirsty and jaded fan had to acknowledge that a Muschamp firing at the end of 2019 was likely impossible, unless the team took an unprecedented nosedive off a cliff. The much reported on and still hard to fathom $18 million buyout was the biggest reason, but also, football coaches are traditionally given a fairly long leash to figure things out due to the complexity of the sport. 2020 — Muschamp’s fifth year with the program — would be the true do-or-die season.

Now, there’s no longer any doubt Muschamp is safe in 2019, and depending on how the rest of the season unfolds, 2020 could be in the bag as well. It all starts — or continues, rather — with how South Carolina responds against Florida this weekend. Is it too much to ask for two top-10 upsets in as many weeks? Maybe, but as previously mentioned, most fans had the Gators pegged as the most achievable upset candidate before the season even started. Florida’s performance so far, even with a loss to LSU, likely diminishes that confidence. But it’s at least a home game, and for the first time this season, the Gamecocks have something resembling mojo in their corner.

Critics will point to a slew of baffling coaching decisions in the Georgia game — by both Muschamp and Kirby Smart — as proof of why retaining Muschamp is still a wait-and-see decision. The Gamecocks absolutely remain a work in progress, and the college football world needs to see more before any coronations. While the Georgia win is undoubtedly huge and has surprisingly granted USC some breathing room, the Gamecocks still can’t afford to get complacent and drop a game to Tennessee or Appalachian State if the program wants to continue its upward trajectory. South Carolina — and more importantly, Muschamp — needs to prove the Georgia game wasn’t just a freak accident or dumb luck of catching the Dawgs on a bad day. They can do that by pulling another upset this week.