South Carolina coach Will Muschamp is 1-3 heading into next week's game against Kentucky, a team that has beaten the Gamecocks five consecutive years. L.G. Patterson/AP

COLUMBIA, Mo. — There has to be hope. There has to be progress.

Entering his fourth year at South Carolina, Will Muschamp had that. He won more games than any coach in his first three years with the Gamecocks, and he was the only one to take them to three straight bowl games.

With such a tremendously tough schedule ahead — USC had five AP Top 25 teams on the slate in the preseason — most knew it would be difficult for the Gamecocks to finish 6-6 or higher. Muschamp has his most talented team, but Alabama, Georgia and Clemson are still miles better.

Then all of the goodwill Muschamp gained in his first three years disappeared in a loss to North Carolina to open the season. Saturday’s 34-14 drubbing at Missouri just strengthened the criticism.

The Gamecocks host Kentucky next week. They have lost five straight to the Wildcats. That game was always going to be the hinge of the season, because nobody can lose six straight to Kentucky and talk about progress.

Beat UNC and Missouri, maybe a loss to Kentucky can be swallowed. But now?

The Gamecocks lose that game, they’re 1-4 before their Oct. 5 bye week, with No. 3 Georgia waiting on the other side.

“It’s huge to determine the outcome of the rest of our season,” receiver Bryan Edwards said. “I’m going to be ready to play, and I expect everybody else to be ready to play, come out hungry, come out ready to fight. There ain’t no quit in this team, there ain’t no quit in me.”

The excuses are gone. Perhaps it would have offered a salve if freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski wasn’t good against Alabama, but he was. And Saturday against Missouri, he didn’t look himself (perhaps because of a sore elbow) and the Gamecocks’ offense had no answers.

There’s talent on this team. There’s a lot of hope that the season can still be turned around.

Muschamp says that every week is a season, but next week could be his final season at USC.

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.

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