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SEC season review: South Carolina Gamecocks

Will Muschamp and the Gamecocks are headed to the Birmingham Bowl after a 6-6 finish in his first season. Jim Brown/USA TODAY Sports

Will Muschamp had his work cut out when he took over at South Carolina, inheriting a program that had lost its last five games and seven of the previous eight.

Although Muschamp won his debut against Vanderbilt, there were unquestionably lots of rocky moments along the way in 2016. The Gamecocks had one of the nation’s least-productive offenses early in the season before progressing late in the year and winning four of their last six to reach bowl eligibility.

As South Carolina (6-6) approaches its Dec. 29 matchup against South Florida in the Birmingham Bowl (2 p.m. ET, ESPN), here is a recap of how the season played out for the Gamecocks:

Best moment: When a 58-yard field-goal try by Tennessee's Aaron Medley fell short at the buzzer, South Carolina had earned its first win against a ranked opponent under Muschamp, beating No. 18 Tennessee 24-21. Cornerback Jamarcus King picked off two passes, including one late in the fourth quarter that helped the Gamecocks milk most of the remaining time off the clock. It was just the second game for freshman quarterback Jake Bentley, who went 15-for-20 for 167 yards and two touchdowns. He and fellow freshmen Rico Dowdle and Bryan Edwards all made big contributions to the win, giving Gamecocks fans reason for optimism about the program’s future.

Worst moment: Nobody likes losing to a rival. Getting destroyed by a rival is that much worse. That’s what happened in the regular-season finale, when Clemson jumped out to a 21-0 lead in the first quarter and wound up hammering the Gamecocks 56-7. Muschamp’s team trailed 42-0 in the fourth quarter before finally getting on the scoreboard. The Gamecocks were outgained 622 yards to 218. There were some positive signs in the second half for the Gamecocks, but the Clemson game was a reminder of how far they still have to go.

Player of the year: The freshman offensive trio all look like future stars, but this honor probably has to go to defensive end Darius English. The fifth-year senior had started just seven games in his career prior to 2016, but blew up in his final season by ranking third in the SEC with 9 sacks and adding a team-high 12.5 tackles for loss. English won second-team All-SEC honors after the season and likely put himself in position to be drafted next spring.

Breakout player: Let's go with a tie between Bentley and Dowdle here. Bentley’s path from redshirting freshman who skipped his senior year of high school to midseason starter has been covered to death. But it’s pretty unusual to see any freshman go from not playing at all in the first six games to going 4-2 as a starting quarterback once he hits the field in Game 7. That’s impressive stuff. Dowdle’s comeback story is also worth mentioning. A groin injury kept him out of the last three weeks of preseason camp and the first four games, but he became a valuable contributor almost immediately upon returning. In eight games, he led the team with 714 rushing yards -- 226 of which came in a November win against Western Carolina -- and scored a team-high seven touchdowns.

Play of the year: Deebo Samuel's three first-half touchdowns against Western Carolina helped the Gamecocks reach eligibility in a game that wound up becoming a bit too close for comfort. The Gamecocks won 41-31 to notch their sixth win after leading 38-17 midway through the third quarter. Samuel helped South Carolina take a 21-7 lead in the first quarter when he broke a couple tackles and ran straight through WCU’s kickoff coverage unit for a 100-yard touchdown. Samuel joined Sterling Sharpe and Boo Williams as the only Gamecocks players ever to return a kickoff 100 yards.

2017 outlook: Muschamp led South Carolina a step back toward respectability by reaching a bowl in his first season in Columbia. He’d be the first to admit, though, that his program still has some glaring roster holes to fill before it can return to the championship-contender status it enjoyed a few years back. Getting that much production out of freshmen was a nice first step. However, even in the mediocre SEC East, it’s going to be tough to make huge progress next season. The Gamecocks open the 2017 season against N.C. State in Charlotte and will face a total of 10 bowl teams next fall.