COLUMBIA — Will Muschamp enters his third year at South Carolina feeling good.
He turned around a program that free-fell in two years before he arrived, going 6-7 his first year and a surprising 9-4 his second. Rewarded with a hefty raise and a new contract after last season’s triumph, Muschamp returns an offensively loaded team and enough returning impact defenders to make USC a popular pick for darkhorse SEC East champion.
He’ll be asked about the season’s expectations during his Tuesday press conference previewing the season opener. He’ll brush it aside, mentioning that the only expectations he’s concerned with are his team playing to its full capability.
Predictions and projections are for others to perform. And Muschamp more than anyone knows how expectations don’t mean squat.
His previous Year 3 was supposed to be rosy, too.
Coming off an 11-2 record and a Sugar Bowl berth, Florida looked primed to return to the top of SEC. Muschamp had cleaned up the grime of Urban Meyer’s broken program and come within eight points of reaching the SEC Championship Game in his second season.
Yet the 2013 Gators were smacked with an incredible litany of injuries, 10 starters among 15 players who suffered season-ending injuries. Twenty-five Gators missed a combined 126 games.
That was the biggest reason a 4-1 start cratered into seven straight losses to end the season. Grumbling over a punchless offense the year before (even as the team won 11 games) reached a crescendo despite the injuries. Then came the Georgia Southern game.
As many players that were hurt, Florida still cannot lose to an FCS team. Cannot.
Florida lost to an FCS team. The fuse was lit on the time bomb that ended Muschamp’s tenure a year later.
At USC, the Gamecocks were reeling after posting their three best seasons from 2011-13. They’d been brought back to Earth in a hurry, struggling to go 7-6 in 2014, then plodding through a listless 2015 where nothing went right.
Muschamp immediately began repairing the gap in recruiting that had doomed the end of the Steve Spurrier era. He won six games with a team that frankly, shouldn’t have won six games.
Then came last year. The Gamecocks may not have won pretty, but they won, and Muschamp made a change to fix the biggest problem (the offensive coordinator). That’s given USC many reasons to feel good heading into Year 3.
Yes, there have been questions if this Year 3 will resemble the other Year 3. There are similarities — the Gamecocks are coming off a big season but had a struggling offense during it.
There are differences. Most notably, a faith in Muschamp because of what he’s done, in just two short years, on the field and off (the Gamecocks’ next recruiting class could be their best ever).
“You know, I think you live and learn every day on the job. Certainly, I'm a much better coach today than I was that first year,” Muschamp said at SEC Media Days. “At the end of the day, I'm a good defensive football coach. I'm a good special teams coach, and I can recruit. I think those are things you got to stay in your lane as far as those things are concerned and move forward, and that's what we've done.”
The Gamecocks are expected to move forward again even after last year was only the seventh time USC won at least nine games. It’s Muschamp’s Year 3.
Not that other Year 3.