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What happens now that Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks are no longer underdogs?

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Year two at South Carolina was an unexpected success. So was year two at Florida. His third year at Florida, on the other hand...

South Carolina v Tennessee
Will Muschamp
Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Muschamp teams play like underdogs.

They adopt the slowest possible tempo, which helps cut down on the overall number of plays and possessions — a good way for a team with a per-play disadvantage to increase variance. And while I’m sure he doesn’t object to scoring, the first goal of a Muschamp offense is to make sure it’s not putting his defense at a disadvantage. He has been a head coach for six years, and he has had only one offense rank higher than 74th in Off. S&P+ and only one defense rank worse than 36th in Def. S&P+.

This isn’t the most aesthetic brand of ball. But it is a way to stay close to your opponent, when you know you probably aren’t going to generate an inherent efficiency or big-play advantage. And it’s going to look better at a school that doesn’t have quite so many talent advantages, especially when you can play the “No one expects us to win!!!” card.

In his final three seasons at Florida, Muschamp’s Gators were an underdog in 12 games, four per year. They went a rock-solid 6-6 straight-up in those games and 8-3-1 against the spread. But they were also just 15-9 as a favorite, 8-7 in his final two seasons.

Over those three years, the underdog went 15-21. That’s not the way it’s supposed to work in Gainesville.

It can work that way in Columbia, S.C., though.

In his first two seasons, his Gamecocks have been an underdog 16 times. They are 7-9 straight-up and 10-6 against the spread. They’ve been unimpressive at times as a favorite, but they’ve managed to go 8-2 in such games, which has resulted in a pretty rapid turnaround — he inherited from Steve Spurrier a team that had gone 3-9 in 2015 but improved the win total by three games in 2016, then by another three last fall.

2017 was Muschamp’s underdog masterpiece. The Cocks were a ‘dog in eight games, won five of them, and beat the spread in seven. Though they won four of five as a favorite, they beat the spread on that side only once, losing to Kentucky and trying to lose to Louisiana Tech and Vanderbilt.

In season-opening wins over NC State and Missouri, the Gamecocks were outgained by a combined 322 yards but won by a combined 25 points thanks to special teams scores, turnovers advantages, and well-timed offensive bursts. They later beat Vanderbilt while getting out-gained by 54 yards.

This is not a path I recommend following. It’s not a path that worked for Muschamp at Florida, after all. His Gators went 4-0 as an underdog in 2012, won three games while getting outgained, and damn near made the BCS title game. But the magic subsided, and he was out of a job within two years.

He’ll receive more rope at South Carolina than he did at UF, but if you’re good enough at being the underdog, you start being the favorite.

Muschamp’s Gamecocks are the consensus No. 2 pick in the SEC East this season. S&P+, which wasn’t nearly as impressed with last year, paints a blurrier picture (the Cocks are 35th overall, fourth in the division) but still projects them as a favorite in seven of 12 games and as a narrow underdog in two others.

After an unexpected surge to nine wins and a top-20 recruiting class, expectations are quickly rising. We’ll see if Muschamp can better follow up on a big year this time.

Offense

2017 South Carolina offensive radar

A former Georgia defensive back and coordinator at LSU, Auburn, and Texas, Muschamp is clearly a defense-first guy, and that’s fine. So are the two guys who faced off in last year’s national title game, after all. But both Nick Saban and Kirby Smart have figured out how not to hate their offenses.

When he was hired at SC, he quickly scooped up offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who’d also led Muschamp’s last Florida offense. He said that if he had hired Roper earlier in Gainesville, he’d have never been fired, but the results don’t back that up. The three-year Muschamp-Roper marriage has produced offenses that’ve averaged an 89.7 ranking in Off. S&P+. Last year the Cocks improved to ... 88th.

They won despite their offense, not in synchronicity with it. They ranked 64th in success rate, 84th in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of your successful plays), and 93rd in points per scoring opportunity. They gave SC no efficiency advantage of which to speak, and really, the one thing they did pretty well was avoid turnovers.

To his slight credit, Muschamp wasn’t happy with last year’s offense. At the end of the regular season, he fired Roper and promoted receivers coach Bryan McClendon, another fellow UGA grad, to OC. SC didn’t light the world afire in the bowl win over Michigan, but a turnover advantage and a couple of big run plays allowed a comeback.

Muschamp and McClendon have spoken about bringing more of a hurry-up aspect to the attack, but that’s a massive change for your overall team culture to do it well — consider me very much in the “I’ll believe it when I see it (a lot)” camp.

South Carolina v Missouri
Deebo Samuel
Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

It helped that McClendon had Rico Dowdle in the lineup. The junior-to-be had a combined nine rushes and receptions for 77 yards and a touchdown in the bowl after missing the final five games of the regular season. And Deebo Samuel was still rehabbing from a season-ending mid-September injury. Roper was never going to have a great offense, but losing these two players didn’t help.

Dowdle and Samuel are back in 2018, as is basically everyone else.

  • Junior QB Jake Bentley has started every game since the middle of his true freshman season, and even if his stats are far from amazing, it’s probably not a coincidence that Muschamp is 2-4 without him and 13-7 with him.
  • Dowdle looked good in the bowl but was in the middle of a disappointing sophomore campaign before he got hurt. But fellow sophomores A.J. Turner and Ty’Son Williams averaged a decent 5.2 yards per carry, and Turner showed legitimate efficiency at times.
  • Samuel was in the middle of putting together an All-American campaign when he got hurt. In less than three full games, he caught 15 passes for 250 yards and three touchdowns, scored on a jet sweep, and changed two games (NC State and Missouri) with kick return scores.
  • In Samuel’s absence, Bryan Edwards had his moments. In a two-week span against Louisiana Tech and Texas A&M, he caught 10 balls for 190 yards. Granted, he otherwise averaged only 11.2 yards per catch, but he doesn’t have to be the No. 1 guy, now that Samuel’s back.
  • Former four-star prospects OrTre Smith and Shi Smith caught 59 passes as freshmen, each producing a marginal efficiency over plus-10 percent (good for WRs and best on the team). Another four-star freshman, Josh Vann, could enter the rotation this fall.
  • The line was a shuffled mess at times. Nine players started at least one game (only two started all 13), and six are back, including second-team all-conference center Donell Stanley. Depth might not be where it needs to be yet, but Muschamp is trying — he’s signed 10 OLs in the last two classes.

The Gamecocks won nine games despite injuries and an ineffective offense, and it’s nearly impossible to imagine this unit not improving. I can’t wait to see what Samuel might do over the course of a full season, and Bentley should steer a decent ship with this level of experience and this many options.

Outback Bowl - Michigan v South Carolina
Rico Dowdle (5)
Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

Defense

2017 South Carolina defensive radar

The defense has to replace quite a bit. Of the Gamecocks’ top five producers of havoc plays last year (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles), four are gone: end Dante Sawyer, linebacker Skai Moore, safety Chris Lammons, and corner JaMarcus King.

A few more rotation guys depart as well, and to maintain last year’s improvement, Muschamp and coordinator Travaris Robinson are going to need help from juniors up front and transfer in the back.

NCAA Football: South Carolina at Georgia
D.J. Wonnum
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Muschamp deployed a big rotation up front last year, and that could pay off. Sawyer and tackles Taylor Stallworth and Ulric Jones are gone, but six 2018 returnees made at least 9.5 tackles last fall. Juniors D.J. Wonnum and DE/OLB Daniel Fennell combined for 18.5 TFLs and nine sacks last year, and another junior, Keir Thomas, is a potential play-maker.

Sophomore end Aaron Sterling made three TFLs, junior tackles Javon Kinlaw and Kobe Smith each saw rotation time, and any of a host of young tackles — JUCO transfer Jabari Ellis, four-star redshirt freshman M.J. Webb, true freshmen Rick Sandidge and Kingsley Enagbare — could be ready.

If you don’t have known quality, you at least want high quantity. South Carolina’s got that in the middle, and it’s got Wonnum on the edge.

South Carolina ranked 17th in Rushing S&P+ last year despite mediocre disruption — the Gamecocks were 62nd in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line) and 121st in power success rate. They were great at swarming to the ball, though, and that says a lot about the linebackers. Moore’s gone, but T.J. Brunson and Bryson Allen-Williams (combined: 13 TFLs) return, and sophomore Sherrod Greene saw quite a bit of action in a backup role. Moore set a high bar, but this should at least be a solid LB corps again.

Louisiana Tech v South Carolina
Rashad Fenton
Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The pass defense is in more tenuous shape. The Gamecocks ranked just 86th in passing success rate last fall, and that was with Lammons, King, and another starting safety, D.J. Smith. Corner Rashad Fenton is the only returning starter, though sophomore blue-chipper Jamyest Williams nearly saw starter minutes, too. These two and safety Steven Montac are all known quantities to some degree.

You need more than three DBs, however, and the rest of the secondary will be a grab-bag of newbies.

  • Texas A&M transfer Nick Harvey started and had 11 passes defensed for the Aggies in 2016.
  • Gardner-Webb transfer Jaylan Foster combined 2.5 TFLs and 14 passes defensed for the Runnin’ Bulldogs before looking for a new weight class.
  • Rice transfer J.T. Ibe made 106.5 tackles in parts of three seasons as an Owls starter.
  • Junior safety Javon Charleston had a nice spring but will begin the season under suspension.
  • Redshirt freshman safeties Jaylin Dickerson and Tavyn Jackson each made noise in the spring, and four-star freshman Jaycee Horn is versatile enough to find a role.

Again with the quantity. Harvey and Foster were both productive and disruptive at their last starts and could fit in nicely, but there aren’t a ton of knowns here.

Special Teams

South Carolina’s surge to nine wins last year was made more surprising by the fact that special teams, usually a Muschamp strength, had some letdowns. Granted, the Cocks also won two games in part because of Samuel’s kick returns, so it was still a rather Muschampian unit.

Still, place-kicker Parker White had about as well-defined a range as you’ll ever see — 10-for-11 on FGs under 40 yards but 4-for-14 outside of 40 (and yet, he was asked to attempt 14 such FGs) — and punter Joseph Charlton was merely solid. They’ve both got room for improvement. But as long as Samuel’s returning kicks, this unit’s got upside.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep Coastal Carolina 118 21.8 90%
8-Sep Georgia 6 -12.4 24%
15-Sep Marshall 62 7.8 67%
22-Sep at Vanderbilt 75 5.7 63%
29-Sep at Kentucky 64 2.9 57%
6-Oct Missouri 30 0.8 52%
13-Oct Texas A&M 24 -1.3 47%
27-Oct Tennessee 79 11.3 74%
3-Nov at Ole Miss 25 -6.2 36%
10-Nov at Florida 32 -3.5 42%
17-Nov Chattanooga NR 31.3 96%
24-Nov at Clemson 3 -20.7 12%
Projected S&P+ Rk 35
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 42 / 38
Projected wins 6.6
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 4.0 (50)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 20 / 18
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 11 / 7.2
2017 TO Luck/Game +1.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 64% (84%, 44%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 7.5 (1.5)

There are two ways to look at South Carolina’s progress.

On one hand, even though the Gamecocks were probably lucky to win nine games last year with an unsustainable formula, they now have far more experience, especially on offense. Even if they’re not as lucky, they won’t need to be. They’re projected favorites in five of their first six games, and they get East favorite Georgia at home in Week 2; they’ve got as good a chance as anyone to take down the Dawgs.

On the other hand, I can’t shake 2013 from my head. Muschamp’s 2012 Florida team had a similar run of underdog success, but despite excellent returning experience, the Gators couldn’t keep it up. They stopped pulling upsets, and the no-margin-for-error formula resulted in some upsets in the other direction.

Muschamp teams work a lot better when they’re sneaking up on you. Muschamp didn’t have a Deebo in Gainesville, though. We’ll see if the Cocks have enough individual star power to overcome the limitations of the Muschamp formula.

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