COLUMBIA — They answered truthfully, indignantly or not at all. It was a difficult question, especially considering that no matter what happens Saturday, South Carolina will still have at least seven football games left to play.
Is Saturday hosting Kentucky a must-win? Does it determine the future of the program?
“Do you guys feel like you’re playing for coach Will Muschamp’s job?”
“No, not at all. Coach Muschamp’s a great coach,” punter Joseph Charlton said. “I don’t really hear what everyone says about him. He’s one of the best coaches I’ve ever played under.”
The Gamecocks are 1-3 and their first four games have looked as muddled as the plot of “Twin Peaks.” They looked great in an expected rout of Charleston Southern, and looked surprisingly dynamic in an even-more-expected loss to Alabama.
But losses to North Carolina and Missouri, the first where nobody forecast a loss and the second where any struggles were only supposed to be from the road environment, not from the Gamecocks still unable to find an identity, have created the situation. Another loss Saturday to a Kentucky team that is also stumbling — and has won an unbelievable five straight in the series — would send USC into its bye week at 1-4 with No. 3 Georgia waiting afterward.
This is the most important game in Muschamp’s tenure. USC athletics director Ray Tanner declared unending support for his coach during a radio interview on Wednesday, but what else was he going to say with so many games left in the season?
"They're all must-win games, every single game," Muschamp said. "You know what next week's gonna be? Well, that's when we're open ... and we need to kick open's (butt), too."
Tanner and everyone else can preach about Muschamp’s progress, his recruiting and how he lifted the program out of the awful state Steve Spurrier left it in, but even Muschamp says the most important statistic is number of wins.
He hasn’t gotten a notable one in a long, long while. The Gamecocks have lost six straight games to Power-5 competition and have only beaten Chattanooga, Akron and Charleston Southern in that same span.
If it becomes seven on Saturday (and again, six straight to the Wildcats), where is the progress? Where is the belief that Muschamp can turn it around?
“We’re not really thinking about stuff like that, negative things like that,” defensive end D.J. Wonnum said. “Yeah, it’s out there, but we don’t really focus on things like that.”
If the Gamecocks beat Kentucky they can enter the bye week on a positive note and feel good knowing there’s still a lot of football left to be played.
If they lose? The team gets an extra week to sit around and think about it, and while there’s still the same amount of football left, there’s also a lot of time for them to hear about how bad it’s been thus far.
And a lot of time for players and fans to wonder if the right guy is in charge. So will the outcome of Saturday's game determine that?
“I don’t want to answer that question,” center Donell Stanley said.
He didn’t have to. It will in large part be answered for him on Saturday.