Gene Sapakoff is a columnist and College Sports Editor at The Post and Courier.

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South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp talks Thursday during USC's football media day at the Gamecocks' new indoor practice facility. Sean Rayford/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — William Larry Muschamp turned 48 on Saturday, celebrating with South Carolina’s second practice leading into a 2019 football season peppered with potential.

Sure, the Gamecocks have to play Clemson, Alabama and Georgia — No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 in this week’s preseason poll of coaches, none of whom would swap schedules with Muschamp.

But there is realistic opportunity for South Carolina to improve on a 7-6 record. The gauntlet probably won’t get much easier in 2020 when a trip to LSU replaces Alabama on the SEC schedule, or 2021 when Auburn replaces LSU.

The time is now for eight wins, maybe nine.

This is the best team Muschamp has had, probably including his 2011-2014 stint as Florida head coach and definitely since he started in Columbia on Dec. 7, 2015.

Oh, yeah …

That pathetic 28-0 loss to Virginia in the Belk Bowl. Maybe the Cavaliers will win the ACC Coastal Division this year and their quarterback, Bryce Perkins, will play himself into Heisman Trophy conversations. Then it won’t look so bad in the rear-view.

But that was so 2018.

Muschamp has been on a roll in 2019:

• Freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski enrolled early and is the heir apparent to Jake Bentley.

• The Gamecocks are strong and deep in the three key areas of SEC competition: quarterback, defensive line and cornerback. Aside from the Steve Spurrier glory years of 2010-2013, it’s hard to find another time in program history when those spots were collectively more promising.

• The new $50 million football operations building opened. A huge morale boost for players, coaches and staff.

• Clemson graduate transfer running back Tavien Feaster this week announced a jump to South Carolina, adding a very good player to the position where the Gamecocks were weakest on offense. Analyst Phil Steele had South Carolina rated No. 13 in the SEC at running back (ahead of only Kentucky) pre-Feaster.

Sure, Feaster in 2018 didn’t fare well against the two SEC teams on South Carolina’s 2019 schedule (a combined four carries for 10 yards vs. Texas A&M and Alabama with two catches for 29 yards, both in Clemson’s national title romp over the Crimson Tide).

But this is like a Major League Baseball team adding a key piece at the trade deadline.

And Muschamp doesn’t have to throw in a player to be named later.

‘Clemson’s little brother’

• Zacch Pickens, the star Class of 2019 signee, also enrolled early to add to defensive line depth. “A pleaser,” as Muschamp describes, Pickens’ work ethic was good to begin with but will improve as he spends more time around D.J. Wonnum, entering his third season as a team captain.

• The overall leadership is apparently excellent from Bentley and Wonnum to wide receiver Bryan Edwards, linebacker T.J. Brunson and guard Donell Stanley, among others.

“A positive attitude doesn’t guarantee anything,” Muschamp said. “But a negative one does.”

• Team spirit showed up two weeks ago when Gamecock players took to social media to stick up for Muschamp just after someone at SEC Media Days asked the coach if South Carolina is “Clemson’s little brother.”

Chocolate chip

• Bob Caslen, the new University of South Carolina president and a retired Army general, fits right in with Muschamp’s hard-charging approach. Muschamp’s brother Patrick played football at Army. Caslen spoke to the team Thursday night.

As for Caslen’s promise of ice cream as a reward for South Carolina teams that beat Clemson?

“I like chocolate chip,” Muschamp said.

• Recruiting continues on a steady path toward better football. ESPN ranked South Carolina No. 18 for the Class of 2018, No. 17 for 2019 and has the Gamecocks at No. 18 (with 15 commitments) for the Class of 2020.

“Our goal doesn’t change,” Muschamp said. “We want to win the (SEC) East and win our state.”

What do you want him to say, that the goal is to beat a Coastal Division also-ran in a bowl game and come within three touchdowns of Clemson?

The Gamecocks after a strong offseason are better than that, capable of beating Florida and Texas A&M. And, finally, Kentucky.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff

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