When South Carolina was 2-4 midway through the 2016 season, critics of Ray Tanner’s decision to hire Will Muschamp as Steve Spurrier’s successor boldly blared their ‘I told you so’ sentiments.
Almost two months later, the Gamecocks are playing in a bowl game, something most analysts thought virtually impossible back in July during Football Media Days in Hoover.
Of course, a 6-6 record isn’t going to get anybody into a major ‘New Year’s 6’ bowl, but after relying chiefly on a true freshman quarterback and a true freshman running back throughout the second half of the campaign, and braving the typical roller coaster ride part and parcel of that dependence, Muschamp and the Gamecocks are happy to just be bowling.
“We were picked to finish last in the Southeastern Conference,” Muschamp reminded everybody Sunday night during a bowl announcement press conference at Williams-Brice Stadium. “You guys (media) did a really good job with that. We’re going bowling. That’s exciting. As a program, we’re not where we want to be. Nobody is satisfied with 6-6, I can assure you of that. Thank goodness we’re not where we were.”
The Gamecocks face South Florida (10-2) of the American Athletic Conference Dec. 29 at 2 p.m. ET (1 p.m. local) in the Birmingham Bowl at Legion Field in Birmingham, Ala.
Tanner, the Gamecocks athletics director, spent the weekend in Atlanta at the SEC championship game and was involved in numerous discussions with bowl and conference officials.
“I’m content with the outcome, not only our bowl but the way the other bowls ended up checking out,” Tanner told a small group of reporters Sunday night. “(Six wins for USC) could have been a factor (in the Gamecocks landing in Birmingham), but there were a lot of factors for Pool of 6 consideration. I like the process. We were heard. We had a chance to visit with Greg Sankey, Mark Womack and all the other people involved with SEC leadership. We were all there (Saturday) and Friday night. We had a chance to meet and discuss some of those things.”
Tanner hopes the Gamecock fan base focuses on the big picture and USC surpassing preseason expectations instead of the Clemson loss or the last bowl experience in Birmingham when the frigid weather and USC’s lackluster loss to UConn left many fans shivering.
“This team wasn’t going to accept a transition and not have an opportunity to go to a bowl game,” Tanner said. “Coach Muschamp’s mentality is win now. My message to the fan base is let’s celebrate what these young men have been able to do. It’s not easy to go through what they have in the last year with all the changes. Not many people gave us a chance to go to a bowl game.”
USF, coached by Willie Taggart, who has been subject of intense speculation connecting him with the Oregon job, are ranked No. 25 in the latest Associated Press poll and No. 22 in the USA Today Coaches’ poll.
“Willie Taggart is a guy I have a lot of respect for,” Muschamp said. “He’s a good football coach. He has done a fantastic job at South Florida. He would certainly be attractive to any university.”
The two programs have met just once previously in 2004 when the Gamecocks won, 34-3, in Columbia. USC carries a four-game bowl winning streak into the late December clash. Only one school in the country (Marshall with five straight bowl wins) has a longer current bowl winning streak than the Gamecocks.
Carolina has an overall record of 8-12 in bowl games and has earned bowl eligibility in 12 of the past 13 seasons, although twice they didn’t participate in the post-season (2004, 2007).
With final exams scheduled for Dec. 5-12, bowl practice is scheduled to begin for the Gamecocks shortly thereafter on Dec. 15.
“In bowl practice, there is only so much you can change and do schematically,” Muschamp said. “You are who you are and we’ll prepare as we watch the film of their team through the season.”
The first four or five bowl practices will focus entirely on improving fundamentally since the Gamecocks will have been away from the football field for nearly three weeks by the time the first bowl practice arrives, Muschamp said.
“We need to get back to the basics,” Muschamp said. “We’ll have some time as a staff for some quality control work and study ourselves a bit to see where we need to improve on.”
After the initial wave of workouts, USC will have four practices in Columbia focusing on USF before taking a Christmas break, Muschamp said.
The Gamecocks will travel to Birmingham on Dec. 26.
With one eye on better seasons ahead, Muschamp looks for the Gamecocks to keep improving on both sides of the ball against USF
“Looking back on the season, there are two words that come to mind – improvement and future,” Muschamp said. “As far as improvement is concerned, we made a lot of strides offensively. We weren’t very good early in the year, but we did show improvement throughout the season.
“Defensively, from last season, we have improved in every defensive statistic they keep. In some of them, vastly improved. We have a very young team and I thought we would improve and make some strides. Our staff did a really good job, top to bottom.”