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.

Gator Bowl Football (copy)

South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer reacts to a call during the second quarter of the Gamecocks' Gator Bowl loss to Notre Dame on Dec. 30, 2022, in Jacksonville, Fla. South Carolina has reached bowl games in each of Beamer's two seasons as head coach. AP/Gary McCullough

Will Muschamp went backsliding. Twice.

Dabo Swinney turned things around from hot seat to elite. Nick Saban set the dominant tone.

Brian Kelly made major strides, and again, and once more.

The third time is a charm. A curse.

Or worse.

Shane Beamer is off to a better-than-expected start two seasons in as South Carolina head coach: 7-6 and 8-5 with two bowl appearances. Upsets of Auburn, Florida and North Carolina in 2021, knocking Tennessee and Clemson out of the College Football Playoff in 2022.

“I would hope the progress that we’ve made is extremely evident,” Beamer said.

Independent audits concur.

Here comes Beamer’s third season, and recent Gamecock and SEC indications that it’s extra-important for the long haul.

A third football season in Columbia isn’t necessarily a Gamecock in the coal mine.

A slight Beamer dip — like back to 7-6 or even 6-7 in 2023 — probably wouldn’t be anything to panic about, with the solid uptick in recruiting most recently on display with commitments in the last few days from Woodland High School junior Kam Pringle, one of the top offensive tackles in the country, and Savannah tight end Michael Smith, who picked South Carolina over Ohio State and Arkansas.

Beamer, 45 and born in Charleston, has put together back-to-back strong finishes while inspiring underdogs to overachieve. That looks like a trait.

But momentum sells.

Third-year boom and gloom

Perception, positive or negative, has a way of becoming reality in any college football era.

Muschamp found that out after falling from 9-4 with an Outback Bowl victory over Michigan in his second season at South Carolina to 7-6 in 2018. He went 4-8 in 2019 and 2-5 in 2020 before getting fired when management had had enough.

Same script for Muschamp at Florida: 11-2 and soaring in his second season as Gators head coach, 4-8 in 2013, fired after a 2014 home loss to South Carolina (but allowed to coach the last two games of the regular season).

There are a bunch of good examples among active SEC and ACC coaches of third-year significance.

Saban, 16 years at Alabama: Went 14-0 in 2009 and won the first of his six Crimson Tide national championships.

Sam Pittman, three years at Arkansas: 7-6 in 2022, very disappointing after 9-4 and high summer hopes.

Eli Drinkwitz, three years at Missouri: 6-7 in 2022 for the second season in a row, adding Show Me State pressure to 2023.

In the ACC …

Swinney, 14-plus years at Clemson (hired as interim head coach in 2008): Went from 6-7 in his second full season, 2010, to 10-4 in 2011. The Tigers haven’t won fewer than 10 games in any season since.

Mike Norvell, three years at Florida State: Old-school excitement in Tallahassee after a 10-3 season in 2022.

Dave Clawson, nine years at Wake Forest: 7-6 in 2016 after a pair of 3-9 seasons and bowl-bound ever since.

Jeff Hafley, three years at Boston College: Slipped to 3-9 and a sizzling seat in 2022 after two 6-win seasons.

Dino Babers, seven years at Syracuse: a breakthrough 10-3 in 2018 after two 4-8 seasons.

Kelly has been at LSU only one season (10-4), but his third year was big at three previous stops. Kelly got Central Michigan to a bowl game (and a job offer from Cincinnati) in 2006, went 12-0 at Cincinnati in 2009 (left for Notre Dame before a Sugar Bowl loss) and got Notre Dame to the BCS national championship game in 2012.

The Road to 2024

There are also some active SEC and ACC coaches with third seasons that didn’t move the dial much.

Mark Stoops, 10 years at Kentucky. Went 5-7 in 2015, same as the year before. But went from sixth in the SEC East to tied for fourth as the program was gradually improving.

Kirby Smart, seven years at Georgia: Ho-hum, just 11-3 in 2018, a step back from 13-2 and a College Football Playoff national championship game loss to Alabama. But tearing it up on the recruiting trail.

Jimbo Fisher, five years at Texas A&M: A breakthrough season in 2020, 9-1 and a No. 4 final ranking. Things have gone south for Fisher, but not for a lack of talent brought in with the help of 2020.

Lane Kiffin, three years at Ole Miss: 8-5 in 2022, down from 10-3.

Dave Doeren, 10 years at N.C. State: 7-6 in 2015 between 8-5 and 7-6 seasons.

Mack Brown, four years in his second stint at North Carolina: 6-7 in 2021, his only losing season this Tar Heel cycle.

Pat Narduzzi, eight years at Pittsburgh: 5-7 in 2017, his only losing season.

No doubt, all college football coaches (and fans) have had to turn and face the strange changes of NIL-based recruiting and transfer portal-related roster shuffling. Teams can get better or worse much faster than just a few years ago.

But that only raises expectations that demand results. The third season still projects as something resembling a turning point (positive or negative) or a critical step up in consistency.

For Beamer, it’s even more important with 2023 the last season before the College Football Playoff expands to 12 teams, something Gamecock fans want to be able to talk about in the coming Novembers.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff