Gene Sapakoff is the oldest, fastest, hardest-hitting sports journalist in S.C. As columnist at The Post and Courier he covers Clemson, South Carolina and other interesting things. He likes food and has won the prestigious Judson Chapman Award 3 times.

Williams-Brice Stadium, Gamecock fans

These are stormy times for South Carolina football. Gamecock fan interest and attendance will decide whether or not there is a rainbow over Will Muschamp's program. Gene Sapakoff/Staff

COLUMBIA — It’s a different kind of South Carolina primary season here in the Midlands.

No sign of signs for Joe or Elizabeth, Bernie or Kamala, Pete or Beto. But the polls — er, ticket booths — are already open.

Online voting is encouraged.

Vote as often as you like.

Regrets? Relax. This primary has a secondary market.

Fans of the South Carolina Gamecocks football program, with their interest or lack thereof, will vote over the next few months on the future of suddenly embattled head coach Will Muschamp.

He told us this was his best, deepest South Carolina team. The Gamecocks go into an SEC home game against recent nemesis Kentucky on Saturday night with a 1-3 record and critical questions:

  • Was South Carolina a mere play or two away from wins in losses to North Carolina and Missouri or is that part of a disturbing trend?
  • Is it unwise to make a change with recruiting still going well or does a losing record forecast a dip?
  • Does Muschamp deserve one clearly bad season in four years or is a fourth-year fade too much like his Florida tenure?
  • Is an $18.75 million buyout (fifth-highest in the SEC) too much or is it money well invested in a theoretically fruitful future?

Such philosophical issues will give way to hard numbers.

I called over to the university financial office and they don’t have $18.75 million lying around.

It’s hard to shake down debt-accumulating students for more cash.

Booster donations? OK, but that’s money that might have gone to other sports things. This isn’t Texas.

Still, you get to $18.75 million surprisingly quickly if there are a lot of empty seats at home games.

Let’s leave out the Nov. 30 date against Clemson. Ticket prices for the other four remaining home games (Kentucky, Florida, Vanderbilt and Appalachian State) range from $45 to $70.

People hit the concession stands, too, and most pay to park.

If 20,000 fewer fans meant a loss of $75 per customer (very conservatively) over four games, that’s $6 million.

Projected into next season, that’s more.

It’s hard to put a price on merchandise sales and the economic impact of relative football mediocrity on the sale of gas, fried chicken, hotel rooms and donuts around the state.

And it’s highly unlikely South Carolina would have to pay the full $18.75 million anyway after exit negotiations and offsets.

Computer: Not that bad 

The wild card in all this is Bob Caslen, the new University of South Carolina president and a former Army general. Though Caslen knows a lot about military intelligence and not that much about the Gamecocks’ place in the college sports continuum, he probably recognizes apathy as the enemy.

Caslen knows rah-rah rivalries, too. In fact, Caslen in his meetings with student groups has restated an introductory news conference promise to reward Gamecock athletic teams with ice cream if they beat Clemson.

Some students have told me that’s annoying, that they came to South Carolina for a lot more reasons than a comparison to Dabo Swinney’s football winning machine.

Funny thing is, the updated Sagarin computer rankings confirm that the game at Williams-Brice Stadium on Nov. 30 (adjusted for the Gamecocks’ home-field advantage) is the toughest regular-season challenge left on Clemson’s schedule.

A computer ranking of No. 35 for a 1-3 team is also an indicator that things really aren’t all that bad.

Dietzel, Holtz, Spurrier

Had Muschamp gone for it on fourth-and-1, maybe South Carolina beats the Tar Heels in Charlotte instead of suffering a 24-20 loss.

It was 34-14 at Missouri, a game in which freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski fell victim to a pair of odd spirit crushers: the ‘ol catch your own pass and fumble it while attempting to get rid of the ball play and a 100-yard interception return.

And remember, the school’s best football hiring habit has been the retread national championship winner who brings relatively unprecedented success:

  • Paul Dietzel (1969 ACC champions)
  • Lou Holtz (back-to-back New Year’s Day bowl wins)
  • Steve Spurrier (SEC East title followed by three straight 11-2 seasons)

Should South Carolina decide to go that road again, the pool of national championship winners not including Swinney, Nick Saban and Jimbo Fisher is fairly uninspiring.

Urban Meyer isn’t coaching but wouldn’t take the job.

Les Miles? Bob Stoops? Mack Brown? Pete Carroll? Larry Coker? Gene Chizik? Jim Tressel? Phil Fulmer? Bobby Bowden?

Sounds like a crowded primary field.

It’s all up to the voting public.

By the way, showing up at a major college football game is, historically, a good way for campaigning politicians to reach lots of potential supporters.

More or less these days in Columbia.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.