There were the little moments as it was all said and done Saturday.
New University of South Carolina president Robert Caslen walked down the sideline, with comforting slaps on the shoulder for cheerleaders and Cocky. Linebacker Ernest Jones smashed his helmet on a bench.
When the final whistle blew in the Gamecocks’ 34-14 loss at Missouri, the mood on the field had a slightly friendly air as the rosters mingled. But after pleasantries were exchanged, Gamecocks quarterback Ryan Hilinski wore a scowl coming off the most-struggle-filled game of his young career.
As the team left the field, a Missouri fan on one side shouted at USC’s Will Muschamp, while a Gamecock fan on the other side shouted for players to keep their heads up.
At the end of a fraught and weird game, South Carolina’s season is changed, perhaps irreparably.
South Carolina sits at 1-3. The schedule offers little in the way of safe haven. The only non-SEC games left are Clemson and Appalachian State, a team that just edged a UNC squad that already upset South Carolina.
Muschamp had only one answer looking ahead.
“Just going back to work,” Muschamp said. “That’s all we can do right now. Let’s get back to work and try and find a way to get a win.”
The chances for a bowl are now on life support. Although no one directly said it, Hilinski looked like a player whose elbow was bothering him, as news broke before the game that he was limited in practice during the week.
Barring a miraculous finish, this season will end without a bowl. It will represent a second year in a row when USC’s win total drops. The next week, likely the next month, will be filled with fans asking about Muschamp’s job security and his buyout.
Such is life in the SEC. Such is life when the start of the season goes wrong.
As fans wait on any potential turnaround, there are a few spots to watch for what comes next.
▪ Ryan Hilinski: The freshman struggled mightily in his first road start. Muschamp said it wasn’t particularly linked to elbow issues that bothered him during the week, but his passing wasn’t as crisp as usual. Either way, the team has to figure out what it has in him, as he likely defines whatever comes next.
▪ Can this offensive line get things fully in order? The Gamecocks have been up and down, often more down, up front all through the Muschamp era. This year’s unit has shown moments but had a mess of issues Saturday. All the lead tailbacks leave after the season, but nearly every lineman is set to come back.
▪ Where is this defense? The Missouri game saw South Carolina’s defense battle for long stretches, and then break down in critical moments. The struggles often came with tackling, where misses and broken tackles turned modest gains into large ones. The team has the talent, including a lot of young talent, to field a solid unit there, and perhaps that group can find itself going forward.
▪ Finding the next generation of playmakers: Every back of note is set to run out of eligibility. Top receiver Bryan Edwards will depart, and one can’t rule out Shi Smith looking at the NFL. Kyle Markway and Nick Muse are making bids at tight end, but the team will need backs and receivers to step up.
This is not to say the team should or will just turn it over to the young guys, but there are questions to be answered across the next eight games.
When asked if major changes were needed, Muschamp gave a flat, “No.”
The Gamecocks themselves, they’re vowing to fight, to do what is needed to turn things around with three top-10 foes still on the docket. That starts next week with Kentucky at home.
Their approach won’t change, even if the season very much did with Saturday’s outcome.
“I’m going to be ready to play,” Edwards said. “And I expect everybody else to be ready to play and come out hungry and come out ready to fight, man, because ain’t no quit in this team and ain’t no quit in me.”