CHARLOTTE — What?
How could South Carolina look that flat? How could Virginia look that good? The Gamecocks were pounded by an ACC team not named Clemson, and that’s inexcusable, no matter the reason.
Bowl games, by and large, are usually not great indicators of seasons. Weird things happen in them.
But it’s hard not to question where USC is headed after Saturday.
Seven takeaways from a discouraging season-ending loss:
1. Too good to be true
There was no sign of that sizzling air-it-out offense that blistered Clemson until it thought moonpies don’t go with RC cola. There wasn’t any of what scored enough first-half points to beat Akron in the regular-season finale, either.
The Gamecocks didn’t score in their final six quarters of the season. Akron, they didn’t have to. Virginia, they did.
And boy, they did not.
The offensive line let Jake Bentley get hit, sacked and tripped with the kind of blocking that gave “protection” a bad name. The Gamecocks were missing Zack Bailey, but his absence shouldn’t have meant that much. The Cavaliers were coming at Bentley from all sides, and they had their hands in every passing lane.
Not picking up fourth-and-1 and then not picking up third-and-1 on the first two drives settled it. USC was flustered and nervous after that, Bentley’s throws became flatter and easier to intercept, and the Gamecocks, after not finding success with the run early, had to abandon it late.
A lot could be blamed on one bad game, but goodness, the short-yardage situations at the very least need some serious work before next season.
2. Not just the red crosses
The Gamecocks had a ridiculously unlucky run of injuries this year, the team barely able to field consistent defensive lines or a secondary. That kind of stuff happens, and there’s not many ways a coach can design schemes when they don’t know who will be available to execute them.
The problem throughout the season seemed to be that tackling, staying in gaps and basic coverages were poor to start. The Gamecocks like to play back to not allow the big play, preferring death by papercut. Their wrapping is atrocious. Concentrating on knocking away the ball instead of making the tackle worked last year but was a hindrance this year.
Having to re-teach the basics should not be happening at any level of college football, much less going into a fourth year of a coaching tenure.
3. Not too Shi
Shi Smith is USC’s next great receiver. The ways he can impact on kick return and in the regular offense are limitless.
Of course, having a veteran quarterback can help him be that guy next year.
4. Swan songs?
Bentley, Bryan Edwards and Donell Stanley said they’re still mulling their NFL futures. Looking at how Bentley played Saturday, and how Edwards played all year on a bum ankle, it seems that each should come back.
But it’s never that simple. NFL scouts don’t look at game film, they look at NFL Scouting Combine numbers. Bentley would be magnificent at the combine. If Edwards can get healthy and turn in a nice 40-yard dash time, he could up his grade.
To be continued.
5. A sliver of difference
Gamecocks go 8-5, they had a heck of a year considering all the adversity.
They went 7-6 and were shut out by a team from the ACC, also known as Clemson and the Pips. Most of the ACC belongs in Region 3-AAA (no offense to the fine teams already in that region).
It’s only one game, but it was the last game. The one that gets remembered until August.
6. The lookahead
The theory of a bowl win spring-boarding a team into the next season never holds up. There’s just too much that happens between seasons to think one bowl win a year ago can help the next season (see how South Carolina’s 2017 season ended).
The Gamecocks couldn’t think that way anyway. Their schedule next year was going to be tough enough. There are three five-game losing streaks on it with another four-game losing streak.
All three of those underclassmen leaving would be a significant hurdle. If Bentley leaves in any case, USC will have a redshirt sophomore, redshirt freshman and true freshman as quarterbacks 1-3.
7. Where are they?
The offense finally got fixed and the defense was so banged up it didn’t matter. Then the defense played about as well as could be expected in the bowl game and the offense didn’t show up.
Will Muschamp is in no danger of losing his job. Let’s make that clear. He inherited a rusty ’73 Pinto, and while it’s no gleaming Maserati at present, it’s at least a Corolla with four wheels and a radio that can get you from here to there.
There’s been improvement, a lot of improvement. He has a couple of school records that probably won’t ever be topped.
Yet it’s Year 4 next season. The one where almost every player is “your” guy. The system’s in, the attitude’s in, everybody who comes into it or sees it should have a solid expectation of what will happen.
The Gamecocks can’t even say they’ll be consistent. They showed up flat (Muschamp and Bentley said no to that, Stanley said yes). There was no adjustment after halftime except how to get worse. There were years, a whole lot of years, where three bowl appearances and two winning seasons would be greeted with gubernatorial proclamations.
Those days are gone. Salaries and facilities have been improved to take the Gamecocks past competitive, which they almost always have been the last three years.
They weren’t on Saturday. Which is why it may have been a turning point of Muschamp’s tenure.
Right now, it was just a bad game with a dark forecast. That can be turned around.
It needs to start turning.