Muschamp: 'People who know ball and know me know that I'm a good coach'

COLUMBIA, South Carolina -- Steve Spurrier, never one to mince words, is pretty honest about how his last season with South Carolina went.

Spurrier, now an ambassador and consultant for athletics at Florida, his alma mater, says he believes there's only one direction for the Gamecocks to go under new coach Will Muschamp.

"It was such a lousy year last year," Spurrier said. "There's no way he could do as poorly as the outcome last year."

Muschamp, 45, will be looking to begin to rewrite his coaching legacy, starting with Thursday night's opener at Vanderbilt (8 p.m. ET, ESPN). He was fired after four seasons as Florida's coach from 2011 to '14. He spent last season as Auburn's defensive coordinator before taking the South Carolina job.

"I think you live and learn each year, whether you're a head coach, coordinator or business manager," Muschamp said. "You learn different things that work and different things that don't."

Muschamp wasn't the Gamecocks' first choice to replace Spurrier -- they had their sights set on Georgia's Kirby Smart, North Carolina's Larry Fedora and Houston's Tom Herman before hiring him -- but he's out to prove he was the right one.

With a rare do-over as a head coach, Muschamp insists there's more to him than the screaming, maniacal sideline character that helped earn him the reputation as one of the sport's best defensive coordinators.

"I'm not worried about that," Muschamp said. "Perception is not always reality in life. I'm not overly concerned about the perception of things. I think people who know ball and know me know that I'm a good coach."

There haven't been many head coaches who were afforded second chances to prove their critics wrong, especially in the SEC. There have been only a handful of men who have coached two teams in the league, including Nick Saban (LSU and Alabama), Spurrier (Florida and South Carolina) and Paul "Bear" Bryant (Kentucky and Alabama). Most of them were successful at their first stop.

That's why Muschamp was somewhat of a surprising choice to lead the Gamecocks. After guiding the Gators to a 7-6 record in his first season in 2001, they went 11-2 and played in the Allstate Sugar Bowl the next year. But then the bottom fell out, as the Gators went 4-8 in 2013 and 7-5 in '14 (Muschamp didn't coach in the bowl game after stepping down after a 6-5 regular season).

South Carolina athletic director Ray Tanner says Muschamp accomplished more at Florida than his record might reflect. When Muschamp took the Florida job, he had never been a head coach, and he replaced Urban Meyer, who guided the Gators to two national championships.

"Unlike a lot of people, I didn't think the Florida situation was a failed attempt by Will Muschamp," Tanner said. "A lot of people say he failed at Florida. I know people say that, but I don't see it that way. It was four years, and there was adversity but there was also success."

Former Texas coach Mack Brown, who hired Muschamp as his defensive coordinator in 2008 and later designated him as UT's coach-in-waiting, said his former assistant coach should be more prepared in his second stint as a head coach.

"He's at a great place," Brown said. "When you walk into a place like Florida or Texas, without any head coaching experience, the learning curve is so steep and you've got a short time to get there. After you've done it, it gives you a totally different experience as a head coach."

More than anything else, Muschamp knows he'll put more emphasis on his team's offense. His Florida teams' lack of production on that side of the ball was his ultimate undoing. In his final three seasons with the Gators, they never ranked better than 12th in passing or 10th in scoring in the SEC.

"Every place is different, and at the end of the day I knew we had to be productive offensively," Muschamp said. "If you go back and look at Florida, we did try different things, schematically and coordinator-wise. We went through some things and we weren't productive. That falls on my shoulders, and I feel much more comfortable about our staff and the buy-in from our players right now."

Muschamp's last offensive coordinator at Florida, Kurt Roper, will direct the South Carolina offense, and he retained offensive line coach Shawn Elliott, who coached the Gamecocks in their final six games after Spurrier resigned last season.

While senior quarterback Perry Orth is expected to start against the Commodores, freshman Brandon McIlwain is expected to play in the game. Another freshman, Jake Bentley of Opelika, Alabama, who skipped his entire senior year of high school to enroll at South Carolina this summer, might be the team's best passer.

"That future at that position at South Carolina is as good as anywhere in the country," Muschamp said.

But South Carolina has plenty of holes everywhere else, which is why fans might not see immediate results. The Gamecocks are expected to start only two seniors (left tackle Mason Zandi and Orth) on offense, after finishing 12th in the SEC in total offense (362.1 yards) and scoring (21.9 points) in 2015.

South Carolina has five seniors starting on defense, but star linebacker Skai Moore will miss the season while recovering from neck surgery.

The Gamecocks don't have a lot of depth. For all the good Spurrier did at South Carolina, such as guiding the Gamecocks to three consecutive 11-win seasons from 2011 to 2013, a first in the program's history, he didn't exactly leave behind a wealth of talent.

"The drop-off at running back, receiver and defensive back is pretty scary for us," Muschamp said.

At least help might be on the way. South Carolina's recruiting class this past February was ranked 10th in the SEC and 27th nationally. The current class of 21 committed players for 2017 is ranked seventh in the league and includes seven players in the ESPN 300.

"I really believe that our fan base is educated and pays attention to recruiting," Tanner said. "They understand the situation we're in right now, where recruiting had taken a step back. We all want to win the next one, but I think they'll be extremely patient with Will if that's what it takes."

If the Gamecocks stay healthy and a handful of young players contribute, they might be able to finish 6-6 or better. Country singer Darius Rucker, a lifelong South Carolina football fan, has promised a free concert in Columbia if the Gamecocks make a bowl game.

How's that for lofty expectations?

"I think fans will be patient because Steve's time didn't end up well," Brown said. "Everybody feels like they're down. I don't think the expectations are very high. It's kind of a new birth. Steve had a good run, but it's over. Steve had a fun run, and now it's time for Will to start over with realistic expectations."