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South Carolina Head Coaching Search: The Cases Against and For Will Muschamp

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The Gamecocks new head coach is likely to fail. But there are also reasons to believe that he might succeed

Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Those of you who follow me on Twitter don't need to ask what my reaction was to the Gamecocks' decision to hire Will Muschamp as head coach. Since the direction of the coaching search started to become clearer and clearer on Friday, my football-related mood has ranged from a boiling cauldron of anger to a soul-surrounding feeling of despair.

I do not mind that South Carolina ended up with its third or fourth pick, because of the perfect storm that surrounded its top candidates. (Tom Herman will have a shot at Texas if Charlie Strong is fired next year, Kirby Smart is headed to his alma mater, and Rich Rodriguez -- who might have been offered the job -- once played even Alabama, so why expect something different for South Carolina?) But I do mind that Will Muschamp is that third or fourth candidate, instead of a promising young coordinator who hasn't failed at a better job, or a mid-major head coach looking to move up, or even an FCS head coach with a record of winning.

There's been some push-back on the anti-Muschamp narrative from some South Carolina fans, and I'd be willing to venture this far: Muschamp might be the most controversial head coaching hire, on his own merits, of the three coaches picked by SEC East teams this year. Barry Odom has the advantage of having been with Missouri's program. The arguments about Smart taking over at Georgia seem to be more about his being a replacement than a successor -- we're replacing Mark Richt with this guy? If Richt were to have decided that he wanted to devote the rest of his life to running a soup kitchen -- not an implausible idea -- and Smart moved to Athens after that, the reaction might be different.

With that in mind, let's lay out the cases against and for Will Muschamp, beyond just a glance at his win-loss record at Florida. (Although, really, that should be enough for the case against.) The case for Muschamp is most decidedly not an effort by me to convince myself or anyone else that Muschamp is a good coach; I still think the reasonable best-case scenario is likely Muschamp becoming the first head coach to win back-to-back-to-back Independence Bowls.

But I hope to be proven wrong. And if so, the factors in the last half of the post might be one of the reasons why.

The Case Against Will Muschamp

Offensive coaches work out better in the SEC. Especially at underdogs. Hiring a coordinator is always a high-risk, high-reward exercise in football, but almost every head-coaching hire is a gamble. The problem with hiring a coach like Muschamp in the SEC is that defensive coaches don't offer the best chance at success -- and they often fail spectacularly.

Consider the "rugged SEC West." Of the seven coaches in the division unanimously considered the best in the conference and widely considered the best in college football, five came up through the offensive ranks. Another is named Nick Saban. The other is Bret Bielema, whose rebuilding project definitely seems to be headed in the right direction, but still hasn't really had what you might call a breakthrough season.

Now, look back at the SEC East for a minute. Of the seven coaches who led their teams at the beginning of the 2015 season, only two had never taken their program to a bowl or would not do so this year: Derek Mason and Mark Stoops. Who also happened to be the only two defensive head coaches in the division.

What are the biggest success stories of the last decade at underdog programs in the conference? Any list would include Dan Mullen at Mississippi State, Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss, Steve Spurrier at South Carolina (before 2014) and James Franklin at Vanderbilt. All four were offensive coaches. An offensive background doesn't ensure success -- hello, Derek Dooley -- but it seems to help. And take a look at some of the defensive hires over the years: Ed Orgeron. Derek Mason. Ron Zook. It's not an encouraging list.

Why, in a conference so often regarded as one of the best defensive leagues (or, to the critics, worst offensive leagues) in college football? The explanation I have is more of a working theory than anything else. As a general rule, defensive guys like to run a pro-style or other "bland" form of offense. While that's also Franklin's preference, the offenses run by Mullen, Freeze and Spurrier hardly fall into that category.

One reason there is more offensive innovation in college football than in the NFL is because the talent gap, even among teams in Power 5 conferences like the SEC, is larger in college football than in the pros. Beating a team with greater talent is hard enough; trying to beat them by running the same schemes with less-talented players is asking to get killed. Run the triple option or a unique version of the spread or an offense that is basically a creation of your own imagination (like Spurrier's), and you have a chance to confuse the opposing defense and force the other team out of its offensive gameplan.

And unless you're Alabama, LSU or Florida, you're probably going to face at least one team in the SEC that has more talent than you have. If you're one of the non-traditional powers in the conference, you're going to face several. Nick Saban can be a defensive coach and run a pro-style offense because his players are simply better than everyone else's -- again, LSU potentially excluded. If Kentucky tries to do that, they're going to get destroyed. (To Mark Stoops' credit, he hasn't fallen into that trap and has improved UK, but still doesn't have a bowl appearance to show for it.)

That explanation doesn't entirely explain the woes of the Florida offense under Will Muschamp. He didn't recruit a ton of top-tier offensive talent to Gainesville, but that has to do with other factors that aren't the structural recruiting issues he'll face in Columbia. Maybe, despite the impending hire of Kurt Roper, Muschamp has learned his lesson and will try something different on the offensive side of the ball. But if he doesn't change things up and tries to use a pro set with, say, a 20th- to 25th-ranked recruiting class to beat at least two or three Top 5 or Top 10 recruiting classes a year, the second go-round in the SEC is unlikely to be any kinder than the first.

Muschamp bad
Shanna Lockwood -- USA Today Sports

Failed retreads don't work in college football. There's a tendency in every level of football to think that a head coach who comes into the interview with a solid plan and an ability to convince you to hire them is going to work for your team or program, regardless of what past results might say. That coach can, like Muschamp likely did in his interviews with Ray Tanner, talk about what he would do differently this time or how injuries plagued him in that season -- and how this time really will be successful.

But while retreads who got fired or dismissed from NFL posts can eventually succeed -- think Pete Carroll, who was underwhelming in two pro jobs but eventually returned and won a Super Bowl, or Bill Belichick's infamous detour through Cleveland -- college coaches usually don't. I can think of one coach who was fired or "resigned" at a Power 5 program for performance reasons and then came back to coach another to great success: Gene Stallings, who spent 19 years in the pros and elsewhere after his firing at Texas A&M, then led Alabama to a national championship. Ed Orgeron might have pulled it off at Southern Cal, but he was let go after being a pretty good interim coach, so we'll never know for sure. (Others have pointed to David Cutcliffe at Duke, though his firing at Ole Miss and the revival of his career in Durham are less than a straightforward case.)

Again, I think the differences between the NFL and college football trace back to a difference in the two. (It's usually better to think of NFL and college football as completely different games.) The NFL tends to be a series of narrow games decided by a couple of plays, meaning even good coaches can luck into a bad season or two and get fired. Also, coaches have to contend with general managers who might not make the best personnel decisions and some players who make more than the coaches. College coaches, meanwhile, are dictators over pretty much every aspect of the football program. With rare exception, the coach controls who coaches and plays for his team, and the only egos he needs to soothe are those belonging to the boosters.

There could be a culture clash. Will Muschamp is about as far from the recent prototype of South Carolina coaches as you can get. Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier had their temperamental moments, sure, but neither of them could summon the kind of soul-scorching fury that comes naturally to Muschamp.

Holtz and Spurrier were also plainspoken coaches -- and blunt, in Spurrier's case -- with a sense of humor that endeared them to South Carolina fans. That gave them some reservoirs of goodwill to draw on during difficult seasons, whether it was Holtz's 0-11 slump to begin his time at the school or the series of barely above (or right at) .500 years that Spurrier experienced before breaking through with an SEC East title in 2010.

Muschamp doesn't have that kind of good humor, and probably won't have the resulting sympathy. If he wins quickly, that won't be a problem; boosters and athletics directors tend to be happy as long as things are going well. But if Muschamp tanks right out of the gate, things could get ugly pretty quickly and a fan base already disillusioned by the hire could start calling for blood.

The Case for Will Muschamp

Mushcamp might be able to fix South Carolina's recruiting woes. It's hard to make direct comparisons on something like this, especially when you're trying to do so between programs. But: Will Muschamp's recruiting at Florida ran circles around South Carolina. The Gators were 11th nationally in the partial Muschamp class of 2011 (South Carolina: 17th); fourth in 2012 (17th); third in 2013 (20th); and ninth in 2014 (19th), according to the 247 composite. (I'm not using the Muschamp-to-McElwain transitional class because Muschamp was a dead man walking and McElwain did a near-miraculous triage job after arriving.)

However, recruiting at Florida is very different than recruiting at South Carolina. For all the cachet that the Gamecocks might have picked up in the Steve Spurrier Era, they've lost a lot over the last two years. And while Florida is a state rich with football talent, recruiting for the Gamecocks is more an issue of fighting Clemson to at least a draw in-state while raiding Atlanta and North Carolina to grab a few top-notch players that UGA and the North Carolina schools don't get.

Because of that, signing a Top 10 class is generally a once-every-five-years or once-a-decade prospect. That's unlikely to change much under Muschamp. But even landing classes closer to 11th or 12th as opposed to 19th or 20th on those in-between years could make a difference in how well the Gamecocks do. Unlike at Florida, though, those recruiting victories need to be more evenly distributed between both sides of the ball.

Muschamp good
Kim Klement -- USA Today Sports

Maybe Kurt Roper isn't that bad. There's been a lot of criticism of Muschamp -- including from me -- for reportedly deciding to hire Kurt Roper as his offensive coordinator. Picking the last guy to call plays for Muschamp at Florida to do the same thing at South Carolina does not exactly seem to fit the bill of Muschamp having learned from his experiences and being willing to do new things.

But Roper inherited a train wreck of a situation in Gainesville. Jeff Driskel's brain had been put through a blender by the constant turmoil at the offensive coordinator position -- though it's worth noting that he seems to have done fine at Louisiana Tech -- and then the starting quarterback got injured in the Tennessee game. Treon Harris eventually took over, and -- well, we've seen Treon Harris start at quarterback again this year, haven't we? And Will Grier was redshirted by Will Muschamp during a make-or-break year in 2014, which is a notable devotion to sound strategic decision making if nothing else.

And despite all of that, Roper did oversee an improvement at Florida. The Gators offense went from 100th in S&P+ in 2013 to 72nd in 2014. This year, it's climbed all the way to the lofty heights of -- 61st. It's pretty clear that when Roper took over last season, he was facing more than a one-year rebuilding effort, and he never got the time to complete it.

That said, Roper could still be a terrible offensive coordinator. The best way to figure out whether that's true is giving him a few years to recruit his personnel and run his system with those players before completely writing him off.

The defense should be good. If you're looking for one of the root causes of South Carolina's struggles over the last two years, at the top of the list has to be the complete and total collapse of the defense. In 2012, the Gamecocks were ranked sixth in the nation in S&P+. In 2013, they dropped to 22nd -- still a pretty strong finish. Last year, the defense fell off a cliff, and South Carolina checked in at 71st, the worst ranking in Spurrier's tenure. This year, the Gamecocks plummeted again and ended up ranked 95th.

In his four seasons as Florida's head coach, Muschamp's lowest-ranked defense was the 2011 unit, which was No. 35 in the nation. After that, the defenses ranked fourth, 15th and eighth over his final three seasons. While it's true that Auburn's defense actually got worse this year -- dropping from 20th in S&P+ in 2014 to 50th -- there were some performances that approached decent, and it's always difficult to judge a coordinator on his first year at a new program. Muschamp's record here should provide some comfort.

Standard of Proof

The final element of whether Muschamp is deemed a success or not is: What constitutes success at South Carolina nowadays. This is program that went from 33-6 in 2011-13 to 10-15 over the last two seasons. Before that, Spurrier was the most successful coach in Columbia in at least 50 years simply by keeping his winning percentage above water. Certainly, Muschamp can't expected to start cranking out 11-win seasons on the regular, but going 3-9 after the first year or two also isn't going to cut it. Should the program settle (as one writer has suggested) for bowl trips and contending for the SEC East once in a while? What about an average of eight or nine wins, based on the 2011-15 average, and occasionally making a run at the division?

That seems at least to me like a fair measuring stick, but most fan bases aren't into adjusting their expectations. Students who began attending South Carolina this year hadn't seen the Gamecocks have a losing season since middle school. Are they aware that if Muschamp goes 37-27 over his first five years, that's not that bad by historical standards? That if he goes 41-23 over the same time frame, that's actually very good?

That is the one factor that could affect Muschamp's future that has very little to do with him: The new head coach is coming as the infamous "guy after the guy," despite Spurrier's slide over the last two seasons. Muschamp might not get as much of a chance of Spurrier got -- even if, despite the odds, he ends up deserving it.