COLUMBIA, S.C. — South Carolina was close on Oct. 1. It was close again on Oct. 9.
But both times, the big win proved elusive. Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp told his team that life isn’t always fair after it lost to Texas A&M on the first day of October.
“Sometimes you can work really, really hard and you’re not guaranteed of anything,” he said after South Carolina lost 24-13 to the Aggies.
It was time to continue working, continue to buy in and continue to believe, Muschamp preached to a surely sullen locker room. The first-year coach hasn’t been willing to accept that a thin, young roster can’t win now, after all. So practices that already were lauded as highly physical in the preseason got even more physical and more intense, players said Tuesday.
Four days later, hello, tangible results: The Gamecocks knocked off No. 18 Tennessee in a 24-21 win.
“You’ve gotta have some results,” Muschamp said. “You can’t keep telling guys, ‘We’ll keep working, we are going to go out there and we are going to meet at 7 in the morning on Monday and Tuesday. We are going to meet for an hour and a half to close to two hours. We are going to be on the practice field for two hours again and you’ve got me yelling at you the entire time.’ That’s not a lot of fun, at the end of the day. You’ve gotta have some results to feel the gratification of going out there and having the results of why we are working so hard.
“We are doing it because we want this feeling. This feels good. This feels good for my teammates. This feels good for my program and my school. That locker room was a lot different locker room than we’ve had all year.”
It was a celebration for one night, opening with players taking off on a mad rush from the sideline toward the north end of Williams-Brice Stadium. Players climbed into the student section after Tennessee’s last-ditch 58-yard field-goal attempt felt short, starting the clock on the 24-hour rule of merriment before turning focus to next Saturday.
But this celebratory nature was, in part, about what it means for far beyond those 24 hours.
“We felt like this win turned the program around,” defensive end Darius English said. “It was a big win. It can lead us to a bowl game and the change the program, change the culture.”
The Gamecocks are 4-4, eclipsing last season’s win total with a defining win for Muschamp’s first season. They are two wins away from guaranteed bowl eligibility and one win away from being in the conversation. Struggling Missouri comes to town Saturday and Western Carolina is on the slate for Nov. 19, two games that should be wins for the Gamecocks.
Beating Tennessee — or Florida or Clemson — was a necessity for South Carolina to reach the 6-win mark. It got the win it needed in the first of those three, while gaining a boost heading into those games and beyond.
“Our biggest thing was we wanted to have a start — this is the start of something toward the next couple of games and the next year,” linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams said. “We wanted to be able to have a signature start. Just continue to keep building forward because y’all have seen it: We have the talent on offense and we have the talent on defense.”
What it leads to next is up to the players in that happy locker room, who have continued to buy into what Muschamp and his staff are trying to build.
An offense is progressing, scoring more than 20 points in two straight games after it didn’t do so in the first six. Freshmen have sparked the offense, as quarterback Jake Bentley, wide receiver Bryan Edwards and running back Rico Dowdle had major roles in the upset win. So did sophomores Deebo Samuel and K.C. Crosby.
The defense is playing with an effort and tenacity missing for too long. On Saturday, it executed its game plan of limiting the run and forcing Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs to throw, making that hard on him with constant pressure and ball-hawking defensive backs.
Rolled together, it’s a team that is learning how to win now, meeting Muschamp’s expectation from the start, even if it’s in moderation.
“I’m proud of our players,” Muschamp said. “I told them that after the game, ‘Just continue to invest. Continue to have some belief. Continue to have confidence in what we are doing. Good things are going to happen. When they are going to happen, I can’t sit there and tell you that. Life’s difficult. Life’s not fair. But if you will just continue to do the things we’re asking you to do, we know what good looks like and we are going to get there.’”
South Carolina got that first true taste of “there” Saturday night, its final game in October. Now, the Gamecocks can hit the practice field this week with something tangible in their back pocket.
“We are just going to continue to get better,” Allen-Williams said. “We’ve just gotta keep working.”