Maybe the final result was more a product of Tennessee’s flaws than South Carolina’s excellence. Maybe, if you played this game 10 times, the other nine outcomes would have UT in the win column.
But what really mattered in Saturday’s 24-21 upset of the No. 18 Vols is simple: With much less at stake, the Gamecocks showed more effort and more intensity than their foes, and that’s a direct product of coaching. There’s no “maybe” about any of that.
From a talent standpoint, South Carolina was never supposed to compete with Tennessee in 2016, a year the Vols were near-universal picks to at least play in Atlanta. But the better team fell flat on its face and got out-hustled by a group of Gamecocks missing two starters in their secondary.
“We’re very pleased with our guys’ effort and buy-in … for our guys to continue to fight, it says a lot about the players on our team, but it also says a lot about our staff,” coach Will Muschamp said after the game.
It’s no secret that after athletic director Ray Tanner hired him last December, Muschamp’s SEC head coaching mulligan was met with plenty of criticism and skepticism.
He failed at Florida where he had some of the best resources and talent in the country. He opted to stick with one of his old Gators offensive coordinators in Kurt Roper. He had a massive rebuilding effort ahead of him in Columbia, S.C. All of this had members of the media (myself included) discounting Muschamp this season, and even in future ones.
But Coach Boom struck gold on Saturday in what amounts to a big blow to all of his doubters.
Beating Tennessee is not only a catalyst for future seasons — what recruit wouldn’t take notice of a game like this? — but also a validation of the culture change this staff is trying establish. The demanding Muschamp and his trademark intensity stand in stark contrast to the loosey-goosey attitude of the Steve Spurrier era, and without on-field results, getting the current roster to embody this new mentality was never going to be easy. This latest win marks huge progress on that front.
The offensive line, a sore spot all season, made just enough plays against a fearsome Vols pass rush to give Jake Bentley time in the pocket. The freshman quarterback (15 of 20, 167 yards, 2 TDs) was excellent in his second career start, and he received plenty of support from freshman tailback Rico Dowdle (27 carries, 127 yards, TD).
Most impressively, though, was how a depleted South Carolina defense manhandled Josh Dobbs and the UT ground game. The Gamecocks sacked Dobbs twice, intercepted him twice and held the offense to 3.7 yards per carry. They exposed every one of that team’s flaws and, crucially, staved off any second-half heroics.
Now, sitting at 4-4, a bowl game is entirely possible with Missouri and Western Carolina left on the schedule, and there’s more (albeit less likely) upset potential with Florida and Clemson also on deck.
But that’s looking ahead, dreaming in the land of “maybe.” For now, South Carolina can revel in the alleviation of any doubt that Muschamp, Bentley and their supporting cast have the potential to do big things in Columbia.