COLUMBIA, S.C. — Will Muschamp quickly dove into mentioning moments to remember in his coaching career shortly after South Carolina clinched a bowl berth Saturday.
But the South Carolina coach wasn’t referencing the fact that the Gamecocks reached the 6-win mark to secure a spot in the postseason. He was looking back to a conversation he had with Marquavius Lewis before South Carolina turned its season around in mid-October.
The senior defensive lineman told Muschamp how badly he wanted to reach a bowl game, having not made one last year in his first season as a Gamecock.
“When you’re able to fulfill something like that for a guy like that who’s given everything to South Carolina and really loves this place — loves being a Gamecock — that’s really important,” Muschamp said. “To see the look on his face and a lot of those guys’ faces, especially the seniors, is almost a bit of a relief to be able to say we are going to a bowl game. That’s something of pride. It’s the expectation here, in my opinion.”
It was the expectation that Muschamp set for this South Carolina team he inherited. The first-year coach did not shy away from talking about winning immediately, despite the fact most of the rest of the conversation centered on depth and experience issues on the roster.
Admittedly, it was not a sure thing that the Gamecocks could rebound from a 3-9 season in 2015 to reach the postseason this year.
“I would say at the beginning, it was a little question mark there,” linebacker Jonathan Walton said. “Once we saw the potential we had and the potential that the guys put out there on the field, we knew what we could do. We had faith in our guys that we could do it this year.”
The Gamecocks never shied away from setting the goal, even if odds were stacked against them early on.
“You don’t come into a season saying, ‘Oh man, we aren’t going to go to a bowl game this year,’” linebacker T.J. Holloman said. “We come in and put in all the hard work and that’s what it’s for. It’s to put yourself in position at the end of the year to be able to go to a bowl game. To come into the season, we had our mindset on making a bowl game.”
At the season’s midpoint, it looked unlikely the Gamecocks would be competing for postseason play. They were 2-4 with an offense that ranked at or near the bottom of all statistical categories. But the two weeks between losing to Georgia and facing Massachusetts saw changes made. Jake Bentley was inserted at quarterback, while running back Rico Dowdle got healthy. Wide receivers Bryan Edwards and Deebo Samuel also returned to full health and things got clicking.
But it wasn’t even a matter of the on-field changes as much as the mindset behind the scenes that contributed to the turnaround.
Tight end Hayden Hurst said Muschamp preached taking it a game at a time as USC entered the second half of its season. Linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams said the team still was immature and young when it was 2-4, but it came together and grew up.
“We had the bye week and when we came back, we just all talked to each other and said it’s time for a change,” Allen-Williams said. “We went out here and we won our four games and we got bowl eligible. We’re not done yet. We have one more regular-season game, then we’ve got the bowl game. We are trying to get to eight wins this year. We are trying to play two one-week seasons and get those wins, then that will be a good season for us.”
The Gamecocks travel to Clemson on Saturday, a rivalry game with enough on the line that it was beneficial to lock up a bowl with their 44-31 win against Western Carolina. But Saturday was about win No. 6 coming on senior day, clinching 15 extra practices for a young team to get better and bringing tangible proof of the program’s upward trajectory.
“It’s big for the program,” Holloman said. “We are the building blocks for coach Muschamp and the new staff. It can only go up from here. That’s been our mentality. Today was a special day for us seniors, being our last home game here, but also a special day for this program, taking it to the next level and starting off being bowl eligible.”
In about two weeks, the Gamecocks will know their December fate — likely Birmingham, Ala., Shreveport, La., or Charlotte, N.C.
But no matter where they go, they’re pumped to be going.
“I’m excited about where we are,” Muschamp said, “but really excited about where we’re headed.”