COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) A frustrated Will Muschamp knows he's not close to turning South Carolina back into one of the best teams in the Southeastern Conference.
Year One under Muschamp with the Gamecocks (6-7) ended with his defense giving up 45 points - the third straight game it gave up 31 or more points after not surrendering more than 28 in its first nine games - and squandering a stellar effort by freshman quarterback Jake Bentley in a loss to South Florida at the Birmingham Bowl on Thursday.
It was the first time the Gamecocks had consecutive losing seasons since going 5-7 in 2002 and 2003 under Lou Holtz.
Just reaching the postseason seemed like a pipedream when Muschamp took the job a year ago. The dysfunctional Gamecocks finished 3-9 after Steve Spurrier walked away in midseason. They started 2-4 and only found some momentum after an extended ''Will he or won't he'' debate over breaking redshirt plans for Bentley and start him in mid-October.
Bentley, who left high school after his junior season, rallied the team to a 4-2 finish, including an upset of then-No. 18 Tennessee , and back into a bowl for the first time since Spurrier's last full season in 2014. But Muschamp said often that the Gamecocks are what their record is and he won't take solace in their late rally.
''We've got a long way to go,'' Muschamp said.
The program hit rock bottom the past two game, first in a 56-7 blowout loss to College Football Playoff contender Clemson before the Bulls and mobile quarterback Quinton Flowers riddled Gamecock defenders in the bowl game.
''A lot of our issues need to be addressed in February'' in recruiting, Muschamp said.
Things to watch for South Carolina in 2017:
BENTLEY'S RISE: The Gamecocks found their quarterback of the future in Jake Bentley, who threw for 1,420 yards and nine TDs in seven starts. He completed more than 65 percent of his throws and had just four interceptions, two coming in the bowl loss to South Florida. Count on Bentley solidifying a spot that's been a question mark entering the previous two seasons.
MOORE'S RETURN: South Carolina's best defender, linebacker Skai Moore , missed all this past season after neck fusion surgery. He's been cleared for some activities and is on track, coach Will Muschamp says, for a strong return next fall. Whispers persist that Moore, who led the team in tackles his first three seasons, is considering the NFL. But Muschamp said Thursday that Moore plans to finish his college career with the Gamecocks.
SOUTH CAROLINA RECRUITS: Muschamp and his staff are completing what's right now ranked a top-20 incoming recruiting class for February's signing day. He's already signed one-time Clemson cornerback Kaleb Chambers and is beefing up the offense with two of the state's best players in receivers OrTre Smith of Wando and Shi Smith of Union County.
YOUNG WEAPONS: Bentley is not the only rising young player on offense. Receiver Deebo Samuel, a sophomore, had 14 catches for 190 yards and a touchdown against South Florida. Tailback Rico Dowdle, a freshman, ran for 764 yards despite playing just nine games as he recovered from sports hernia surgery. Freshman receiver Bryan Edwards had 44 catches and a team-high four TD receptions. ''It's going to be a fun year next year,'' tight end Hayden Hurst said.
OFFENSIVE LINE COACH: The last official tie to the Steve Spurrier era left earlier this month when offensive line coach Shawn Elliott, the interim coach in 2015 after Spurrier quit, became the Georgia State head coach. Muschamp used retired, longtime line coach John Latina to get through bowl workouts and has said he'll take his time with the next hire. Whoever gets the job will have a deep, talented, experienced group coming back.
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