South Carolina’s path to progress? Make things even worse for Arkansas and Tennessee than they are now

The close calls don’t just hurt on game day. If you’re a team like South Carolina, and you’re facing a rugged closing stretch that includes three opponents currently ranked in the AP Top 25, those what-ifs can continue to sting even weeks later, when it sure would have been nice to have a few more wins in the bank.

That’s the situation the Gamecocks are facing now, after their offensive line melted down and their defense wore down Saturday night, and a 10-point second-half lead over Texas A&M turned into a 24-17 loss. That’s two weeks in a row now, after also getting kicked around by Kentucky, which looked anything but assertive this past weekend in skirting by a non-Power 5 foe in Eastern Michigan.

South Carolina hasn’t played well enough to be undefeated, but sitting at 3-2 places the Gamecocks in a precarious spot given that the finish to their schedule is tougher than the start.

First of all, what’s the goal here? Progress, of course, from a break-even regular season in coach Will Muschamp’s debut that landed the Gamecocks in the Birmingham Bowl. A step forward for South Carolina would be getting out of that tail end of the SEC bowl selection process, where Birmingham and Shreveport pick among whoever’s left over. Gamecocks fans have visited those two cities in their last two bowl trips, and no offense, but they’d rather it be a while before they go back again.

So a good forward step for South Carolina would be cracking the “pool of six” bowls that are assigned by the league, and in most cases represent NFL stadiums in destination locations — think Tampa, Jacksonville, or Charlotte. Whether it’s this season or next, that’s the jump the Gamecocks have to make. Shreveport has a nice riverfront and Birmingham has wonderful restaurants, but South Carolina can’t get caught in a cycle of rotating between those towns each year.

How to take that leap? Begin with applying the pressure. And not just on the practice field in Columbia — but on the two beleaguered coaches the Gamecocks face over the next couple of weekends.

First, it’s Arkansas. The Hogs’ 42-24 victory Saturday over New Mexico State snapped a two-game losing streak, but didn’t turn down the heat on coach Bret Bielema. The Razorbacks’ visit to Williams-Brice Stadium this weekend won’t make much of a dent in the league standings, but it looms as massive to a pair of programs who each need it badly. Arkansas loses, and it’s 2-3 with Alabama and Auburn coming up. South Carolina loses, and it has to at least split its last six games just to reach bowl eligibility. With Georgia and Clemson still looming, there’s not much margin for error.

In short, the Gamecocks need to send Bielema back to a Fayetteville that’s even unhappier than it is now. Then comes a visit to the crucible of loathing that is Knoxville, and a Tennessee squad that takes a needed week off after getting skunked 41-0 by Georgia on CBS.

What happens if South Carolina wins at Tennessee on Oct. 14? It would be like that scene in “Friday Night Lights,” where fans start sticking “For Sale” signs in the coach’s front yard ( if it hasn’t happened already). The collective psyche of the Big Orange is already so fragile that embattled coach Butch Jones has to walk on tiptoes. A second consecutive victory over the Vols by Muschamp and the Gamecocks, this one at the intersection of Phillip Fulmer Way and Peyton Manning Pass? Calhoun’s might just move down river to Lenoir City.

And yet, after letting a pair of winnable early games get away, that’s what it will now likely take for South Carolina to improve on the kind of season it had last year. Make life more miserable for Bielema and Jones, and the Gamecocks are 5-2 with Vanderbilt, flawed but feisty Florida, and FCS Wofford all at home. Six wins and an all-expense-paid trip to Shreveport, at least, is in the bank. Seven wins might make Jacksonville seem probable. Eight wins and a postseason trip to a warmer part of Florida is possible.

Now, that’s more in line with the kind of leap Gamecocks fans had hoped to see this season. Even now, with the the bruise from that Texas A&M loss still purple and painful, it’s far from outlandish to think it can happen. South Carolina just has to take all that frustration, and turn it loose on a pair of opposing coaches who are battling to keep their jobs.

No offense, guys. It’s just football.

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