By Jeff Owens/Photo by Jenny Dilworth
It’s wasn’t pretty, but South Carolina slogged out a 28-3 win over Akron on a rainy day at Williams-Brice Stadium Saturday, ensuring the Gamecocks a winning season in Will Muschamp’s third season.
The Gamecocks finished the regular season at 7-5 and will learn Sunday where they will play in a postseason bowl game. It’s not what Muschamp and his team hoped for at the beginning of the year, but he was proud of the way his team finished the season considering the number of injuries it suffered and wrapping up the campaign a week late due to a canceled game.
“We faced a lot of adversity,” he said. “We faced a lot of things out of our control as far as injuries and such and they kept playing, they kept hanging in there and they kept fighting. That says a lot about the individuals in that locker room and the culture that our staff has been able to create. I’m really proud of these guys.”
Muschamp has won 22 games in his first three seasons at South Carolina — more than any Gamecock coach in their first three seasons. But as he said after the game, “It’s not about that, it’s about making progress in our program.”
Despite a disappointing five losses after last year’s impressive 9-4 campaign, he believes his team made major progress this year and is much better than the 3-9 team he took over in 2016 or the 6-7 team in his first season.
“We’re in a much better place, absolutely,” he said. “I said before the season started that we have a much better football team entering year three. Whether or not we have a better record than we had a year ago, we have got a better football team.
“We have a strong foundation, we have a bunch of really good young players in our program. We have had some frustrating things happen to us this year, but I am excited about where we are and where we are headed.”
His players are seeing progress as well.
"It's progressing. There's been a culture change so far," junior linebacker T.J. Brunson said. "It's evident with the guys that we have coming in. We haven't gotten to where we want to be yet, but it's coming. I feel like everyone understands that. The guys that we have are willing to work towards that goal."
The Gamecocks suffered two tough early-season losses to SEC foes Georgia and Kentucky and battled injuries throughout the season, forcing them to play a bevy of freshmen on defense.
Muschamp looks at the depth of his roster and the number of freshmen who played this season and believes his program is closer to the ultimate goal — winning the SEC East and beating rival Clemson. And he believes he has the coaching staff to get there, pointing out that his staff has been part of 10 national championships and 30 conference championships.
“We understand where we are and where we need to go,” he said. “There’s nobody more impatient than me in that process and sometimes it’s extremely frustrating, this year was a little bit. But we faced a lot of adversity, our guys handled it the right way and we have a very good, strong foundation and a bunch of good young players in our program.”
He emphasized, however, that the Gamecocks are not there yet. A late-game collapse against Florida and a 56-35 loss to Clemson served as a wake-up call and motivation moving forward.
“We are not close at 7-5. You are what your record is,” he said.
But he reiterated that his program has everything it needs to get there. The opening of the new Cyndi and Kennth Long Family Football Operations Center in January will be another step forward in catching up to the nation’s elite, he said.
“It says a lot about our staff, it’s says a lot about our players and it says a lot about our commitment here,” he said of the second straight winning season. “… It shows the commitment we have to have a championship program, and that’s what you have to do. And you can’t just do it and stop, you have to keep doing it. You look at programs that are winning a bunch of games right now and that’s what they are doing. We are going to continue to invest and continue to strive to be the best we can be.”