COLUMBIA — Will Muschamp made the point crystal clear.
“There are no re-dos. You can’t blow the whistle and start it over again on game day,” South Carolina's fooball coach said. “Our guys understand that.”
Everyone’s hoping so. Starting at noon Saturday, a season of promise, expectation and judgment begins.
The Gamecocks, coming off a surprising 9-4 season, return much of their offense and enough veterans on defense to make them a contender for the SEC East crown. Muschamp has steadily built the depth and added athletes to his project, raising his win total by three games each year, but to do that again may be difficult.
It’s not impossible, though. Muschamp won nine games with a beaten-up squad and a middling offense last year. The thought is that with a new offensive coordinator and so much returning on that side of the ball, Muschamp can get the defense — his specialty — to perform at the same level.
The result could be double-digit wins, a big-time bowl game and maybe a championship to add to the two forlorn banners currently at Williams-Brice Stadium.
If USC can handle those challenges. If the Gamecocks can stay healthy, particularly at quarterback and defensive back. If Muschamp, who had a Year 3 at his only other head coaching stop go disastrously wrong, can keep the trend of USC improvement alive and not take the other track.
Four keys to getting the season off on the right foot, before the first (and perhaps biggest) test rolls around next week against Georgia:
The offense gets going
Fast. The offense has been described as such since McClendon took over play-calling for the Outback Bowl. USC showed it can play up-tempo in the spring, but can it produce while doing so?
“I think we showed that in the spring, the ability to go fast,” QB Jake Bentley said. “We’re going to show the ability to do that the whole game.”
This has to work, frankly. USC can’t install for eight months and then hastily change it after a bad outing. The Gamecocks have the capability to score a lot of points, based on their skill players — yet they had that last year, too, and finished a dreary 12th in the SEC in total offense.
Deebo does his thing
Deebo Samuel was the most electrifying player in college football last year, and then fractured his leg 11 quarters into the season. He’s fully healthy, says he’s stronger and faster, but he’s said that every year and has never played a full season.
USC is better with Samuel on the field. He can break open a game anytime he has the ball in his hands. The Gamecocks can’t design plays to keep him out of danger, so it’s up to Lady Luck to give the guy a break.
Secondary stands out
USC’s secondary will go through a lot of rotation and personnel Saturday, and that may be something that continues through the season. Muschamp is confident in the players that will start the game, but only one of the five has an anchored spot.
Corner Rashad Fenton will be fine. The other corner, the nickel and the two safety spots could have an adventurous season. Saturday is the first and best chance to get comfortable and stake a claim to a position.
Happiness in the backfield
Running backs coach Bobby Bentley said he prefers one dominant back to tote the ball, yet he and Muschamp said that all will play (Mon Denson may be out Saturday with a gimpy hamstring). That’s still three backs, three backs with egos, different running styles and perhaps different assignments depending on down and distance.
Rico Dowdle’s the best, but has also been waylaid by injuries during his career. Ty’Son Williams basically took the last half of last year off, and while A.J. Turner has the biggest heart on the team, he may be too small to be an every-down dominator.
Can there be a truly happy and productive group?
South Carolina 31, Coastal Carolina 13