By Avery Wilks
It's the first year of the College Football Playoff, so why not take this time to ponder the toughest challenges South Carolina must overcome to get there?
Below, I've ranked the toughest tests for the Gamecocks this season. These are the games most likely to derail USC's playoff hopes, in order, not a ranking of simply the toughest teams on the schedule.
Thus, outside factors - like when the game is scheduled and where it will be played - will play a part.
Obviously, the SEC Championship Game isn't listed because, like the Playoff, it isn't guaranteed. Without further ado, here goes.
1. Auburn Tigers. This is the toughest roadblock on the schedule, and it's not all that close. The Gamecocks haven't beaten Auburn since 1933 and are 0-7 against the Tigers since joining the SEC in 1991. Auburn is coming off a near-national championship victory and will still have Nick Marshall and a likely-fearsome running game (the Tigers averaged a 328 rushing yards per game last season). The night of Oct. 25 could make or break the season. It reminds me a lot of how I viewed the Missouri game in the week before kickoff.
2. Clemson Tigers. It's a rivalry game, and it's on the road. If South Carolina is in position for a playoff berth, it will only amplify Clemson's desire to ruin those hopes. Clemson will likely be on at least a five-game winning streak, having faced Boston College, Syracuse, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech and Georgia State over the previous six weeks. On the other side of things, South Carolina will be coming off a five-week stretch that includes trips to Florida and Auburn and a home matchup with Tennessee.
Dylan Thompson knows how to win at Death Valley, but will go up against a much stouter Clemson defense this time around. Emotions will run extremely high. The outcome of this one hard to predict in August.
3. Florida Gators. Don't sleep on the Gators. Hearing Will Muschamp at SEC Media Days listing the names of players who went down last season, but will be back this year, was enough for me to take a few extra looks at this game. South Carolina will have a bye week before playing the Gators, while Florida will be coming off back to back games against Georgia and Vanderbilt.
Unfortunately for South Carolina, the game this year will be played in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, a venue not traditionally kind to the Gamecocks. Things could get out of hand quickly, as everyone saw in 2012, so it will be up to Dylan Thompson to rally the troops against a crowd that could be 90,000-strong.
4. Georgia Bulldogs. As always, Georgia sports a star-studded lineup highlighted by tailbacks Todd Gurley - possibly the best back in the country - and Keith Marshall. South Carolina's ability to stop the run (something it may struggle to do initially with a new-look defensive line) will be paramount, as the Bulldogs will likely trust those two backs to carry the offense while new quarterback Hutson Mason grows into the role.
Georgia gets a bye week after the Clemson game, while South Carolina will play host to East Carolina the week before. Home field advantage, I think, will play into this more than any other outside factor, though. A 3:30 p.m. kickoff isn't ideal for South Carolina in terms of fan enthusiasm, but it shouldn't be hard for Gamecocks fans to get up for this one.
5. Missouri Tigers. It's easy to forget just how close Missouri came to winning that double-overtime game that season. The Tigers were a great team, and they've got a good shot to put together a big season this year as well. Having this game at home will be huge for South Carolina, as the Gamecocks haven't lost in Williams-Brice since 2011 and throttled the Tigers there by three touchdowns in 2012.
Quarterback Maty Mauk will have four games (against South Dakota Stata, Toledo, UCF and Indiana) to warm up for the Gamecocks.
6. Texas A&M. The closer this game inches, the higher it will probably creep up this list. Under Spurrier, the season-opener has always been a chance for South Carolina to shake off some rust, and the Gamecocks have struggled to put away the likes of N.C. State, Vanderbilt and even East Carolina. Texas A&M has more talent than all of those teams, even while replacing Johnny Manziel and several defensive starters.
South Carolina fans looking for a reason to feel confident can first consider that the game will be played in Columbia. Then, they can take a look at the stat sheets. The Aggies finished 96th in the country in scoring defense and finished dead last in the SEC in rushing defense, surrendering upwards of 222 rushing yards per game.
7. Vanderbilt Commodores. The pesky Commodores don't seem to be going away, and under new coach Derek Mason, they're more confident that ever. Could they knock off the Gamecocks at home in the fourth week of the season? It's very possible, but not probable.
Then again, if South Carolina's narrow 2012 victory in Nashville told us anything, it's that probabilities don't matter much at all. The Gamecocks have won by an average of 9.5 points over the past six seasons, but there's been plenty of reason for concern.
8. Tennessee Volunteers. The Vols won in Knoxville last season and nearly knocked off the Gamecocks in Williams-Brice Stadium in 2012, but they're replacing both lines and some talent elsewhere. Tennessee traditionally has more talent that it knows what to do with, and the Gamecocks struggled to put them away even when Derek Dooley was in charge.
But what happens in the trenches often dictates what happens everywhere else on the field, and I don't see the Gamecocks losing that battle this season.
9. Kentucky Wildcats. The game is in Lexington, and, I guess, stranger things have happened than South Carolina losing at Kentucky. Still, the Wildcats didn't win a conference game last season, didn't win one the season before that and probably won't win one this season.
It's not a game to overlook though, as Kentucky lost by just a touchdown to South Carolina last season in Columbia. Anything could happen.
10. East Carolina Pirates. ECU strikes me as the UCF of South Carolina's 2014 schedule. The Pirates went 10-3 last season, and their quarterback, Shane Carden, passed for 4,139 yards and 33 touchdowns. This could be a sizable challenge for South Carolina's new freshmen at cornerback and its young defensive line, which may have difficulty pressuring the quarterback early on.
I don't know if I would expect the Pirates to take an early 17-0 lead (2011), but I wouldn't expect them to lay down and accept a 48-10 beating (2012). A 7 p.m. kickoff could make for an electrifying atmosphere, if only because it's the second game of the season and people will still be in awe of the long-awaited arrival of college football.
11. Furman Paladins. South Carolina gets Furman right in the middle of the season, which, while a little weird, could provide a nice break from the grueling SEC schedule for the Gamecocks. The Paladins went 8-2 last season, including 6-2 in the Big South Conference.
Furman lost to the only top 25 opponent it played, venturing into Death Valley and leaving after a 48-16 thumping by LSU. The Paladins also lost 41-7 to Clemson in 2012 and 54-32 to Florida in 2011.
There are tougher teams to play midway through the season, but I don't see this being a trap game - especially given that the game comes at home for the Gamecocks.
12. South Alabama. Until very, very recently, I was unaware that there is a school called "South Alabama." The Jaguars finished 6-6 with a 4-3 record in the Sun Belt last season, and shouldn't produce a threat to South Carolina's title hopes, provided that those hopes are still alive in the 11th game of the season.
After a quick glance at the stat sheet, it appears South Alabama doesn't run an option offense, which is generally a good thing for everyone involved. This should look a lot like the 2013 Coastal Carolina game, allowing banged-up players some times to rest.