From Rock Hill, S.C., David Cloninger covers Gamecock sports. He will not rest until he owns every great film and song ever recorded.

Cam Smith

Josh Palmer scored the game-winning touchdown as Cam Smith couldn't stay with him on Saturday. AP/Sean Rayford

COLUMBIA — Just when you thought 2020 couldn’t get more unpredictable, South Carolina began its football season. If there’s anything to set your watch by this year, the Gamecocks supplied it by handing away a game they could have won.

Deconstructing a bitter 31-27 loss to No. 16 Tennessee:

The new guys

The debuts of offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and quarterback Collin Hill were positive. The Gamecocks scored a touchdown the first time they had the ball. They averaged a healthy 7.2 yards per play in the second half and scored on four of six possessions (excepting the final fumbled punt). USC posted 379 yards and Hill was 25 of 39 (with at least three drops) for 290 yards, a TD and a pick-six.

The problem was the 27 plays for 50 yards that encompassed the rest of the first half after the opening TD. Tennessee adjusted quicker than USC’s halftime tweaks and made Hill uncomfortable.

Bobo and Hill adjusted, dialing more play-action. You’d rather not see a plan blown up after the first drive, but at least they created a new plan.

The HBC watches

Will Muschamp was always going to have a difficult job as the guy following The Guy. But he can’t shake the reputation stamped to him for going on nine years as a head coach.

Be careful. Don’t take risks. Follow the statistics.

Don’t be the swashbuckling, damn-it-all Steve Spurrier who did and said what he pleased no matter what the situation “called for.”

USC scored on its first drive. Tennessee bobbled a punt and the Gamecocks recovered at the Vols’ 38.

No question what The Head Ball Coach would have done. He’d have chucked it to the end zone, looking for a deathstrike even if was the middle of the first quarter.

USC rushed for 1 yard, called timeout, tried a receiver sweep for 4 yards, then threw incomplete on a short route. Punt.

Pick where the visor would have been thrown.

Shi and the Potentials

One receiver not named Shi Smith caught a ball. The other throws went to tight ends or running backs. The potential USC has in its receiver room continues to be untapped.

Where were Luke Doty and Rico Powers, two guys talked about all preseason? Dakereon Joyner was only used as a decoy.

What’s the bigger indictment? Was it worse to rep Jalen Brooks as a starter all preseason knowing he might not be eligible?

Or worse that the Gamecocks were counting on a transfer to be one of their top guys because the players they had weren’t capable?

Same song, second verse

Muschamp talked about how this is his best offensive line at USC. The newly installed left tackle, Dylan Wonnum, notably whiffed twice on blocks that crushed plays. The rest of the line spent most of the first half getting run over.

Muschamp talked last year about his most talented team at USC. The Gamecocks finished 4-8.

Couple of busts

The defense mostly played well. J.J. Enagbare and Ernest Jones had terrific games.

Losing Israel Mukuamu forced redshirt freshman Cam Smith to play, and he did not have a great night. There were a couple of busts where Tennessee just got a lucky bounce — when’s the last time you saw flea-flicker become a 31-yard screen pass?

The run defense needs work, especially against tempo, but that unit can be strong this season.

Coach-speak

One of Muschamp’s favorite phrases is “Effort. Toughness. Discipline.”

Nick Muse dropped a wide-open pass that could have been the tying touchdown. Hill had a pass batted in the air, and instead of knocking it down, caught it for an 11-yard loss.

Muschamp decided to punt on fourth-and-1 after Smith didn’t get a first down on third-and-1, and didn’t call a timeout to challenge the spot. Smith wasn’t on the field for that key third down before the game’s most notorious decision, with Muschamp saying he was “gassed."

Smith wasn't too tired to jaw at the Vols after the previous play.

It’s good! Except it wasn’t

Muschamp chose to kick a field goal down seven points with 3:16 to play. He explained that if USC was facing something shorter than fourth-and-12, he probably would have gone for it. But he took the points and trusted he’d have another chance to score.

Logic overcomes the explanation.

Why take three points when down seven, not knowing if you can get the ball back? And it certainly appeared from the previous play, a swing pass to Deshaun Fenwick on third-and-15, that Muschamp had already decided to kick instead of approaching third down as two chances to tie the game.

With athletic finances being what they are due to the pandemic, it’s highly doubtful Muschamp loses his job after this season. But athletic director Ray Tanner has always said he doesn’t want fan apathy, and fans are being asked to stomach a coach who is now 26-26 at USC, including 6-12 in his last 18.

Muschamp’s biggest weakness is playing not to lose instead of playing to win. Saturday was not an isolated occurrence.

How much more will USC be asked to take before a change, either in Muschamp’s philosophy or his tenure, has to be made?

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.