By Pete Iacobelli
COLUMBIA — Now comes the hard part for South Carolina’s Will Muschamp.
The Gamecocks second-year coach has proven – at Florida and South Carolina – that he can quickly turn a struggling team into a winning one. He led the Gamecocks from three victories in 2015 to a 9-4 mark after their 26-19 comeback win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl.
The unknown is whether Muschamp can build off the good vibes and keep the Gamecocks rising in the Southeastern Conference. Two years after leading the Gators to an 11-win season and a Sugar Bowl berth, Muschamp after Florida went a combined 11-13 in 2013 and 2014.
That’s why shortly after South Carolina’s bowl win, a Gatorade-drenched, happy Muschamp thanked the seniors and those underclassmen not returning. Then he told the rest of the players the job was nowhere near complete.
“When you come back in in January, all gas, no brakes,” he said. “Let’s get ready to roll, and that’s what we need. You’ve got to keep pressing forward. You’ve got to stay hungry in everything you do, and that’s what we’re going to do in our program.”
South Carolina went 5-3 in SEC play, also its best mark since Spurrier’s time when it was 6-2 in 2013. The Gamecocks return most key contributors from this year’s success, particularly quarterback Jake Bentley.
Bentley was a freshman inserted into the starting lineup midway through the 2016 season with the Gamecocks floundering. He led the team to a 4-2 finish and the postseason, an overtime loss to USF in the Birmingham Bowl. This time, Bentley threw for 239 yards and two touchdowns as South Carolina rallied from a 19-3 deficit.
The bowl win will keep the team fired up about what they can accomplish next year in the SEC, said Bentley, the game’s MVP.
“Now, they know what it feels like to win a big bowl game and they want more,” Bentley said.
Things to watch during the offseason at South Carolina:
NEW OC: One of Muschamp’s biggest tasks will be finding a new play caller to replace fired offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Kurt Roper. Roper was with Muschamp for his final season at Florida and both years at South Carolina, where the offense underachieved. The Gamecocks were 12th in SEC scoring, up from 13th in Muschamp’s first season. Wide receivers coach Bryan McClendon called plays in the Outback Bowl and is a candidate for the job. Muschamp, though, might want to look elsewhere for a coordinator who can jazz up an offense that scored just 24 points a game.
NO MOORE: The Gamecocks will need to find a replacement for one of the program’s all-time greats in linebacker Skai Moore . The senior returned from a neck injury to lead the team in tackles for a fourth season, something only 15 NCAA Division I players have done. Moore also tied the team’s career mark with 14 interceptions. Sophomore T.J. Brunson should be the spotlight linebacker next season.
HURST GONE: Tight end Hayden Hurst, the 24-year-old who played pro baseball before joining South Carolina, is off to the NFL draft, meaning the Gamecocks will lose one of their most reliable pass catchers and best blocker at the position. Hurst was second on the Gamecocks with 44 catches this season.
REINFORCEMENTS: South Carolina will be bolstered by the return of a couple of injured players who seemed tagged for the NFL Draft earlier this season – receiver Deebo Samuel and linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams.