Football season is almost upon us and Gamecock fans are eager to see if the team can continue to climb the ladder toward elite status, a designation that is difficult to obtain in college athletics’ most dramatic sport. While it’s a bit early to reasonably predict game results, it is time to take a glance over the schedule and get a general idea of what stands between USC and the new playoff system being inaugurated at the season’s end.
Once again the Gamecocks will be the center of attention to start the season, opening against SEC West foe Texas A&M on Thursday, August 28 in Columbia. This first-ever meeting between the two schools should be interesting on many levels as we see what each has to offer, but circumstances lean toward the Gamecocks at this point. The Aggies were strong in 2012, but seem to be on the decline since then despite several impressive recent recruiting classes. Obviously there is concern over replacing quarterback Johnny Manziel, but even with the Heisman winner in the backfield Texas A&M managed to lose to every “real” team it played last season (Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Missouri). On the defensive side the Aggies are cursed with the return of eight starters from a unit that gave up over 30 points per game last year. Usually returning starters are a good thing, but not so much in this case. Vegas favors the Gamecocks by double figures in this one and they’re probably not far off.
USC’s three-game opening home stand continues with East Carolina coming to town. In contrast to the Aggies the Pirates are a team on the rise, finishing 10-3 last year after a long drop three years ago when coach Ruffin McNeill took over from Skip Holtz. The Pirates regularly embarrassed USC back in the 1990s, winning five out of seven games, but those days are long gone. Assuming the Gamecocks survive the Aggies, this game will be an opportunity to thump chests and make a strong impression as a powerhouse with a good old fashioned blowout. Anything less will raise doubts, so look for coach Spurrier to hold nothing back.
The ECU blowout will also serve as preparation for the dreaded Georgia game, played in Columbia this year. While it’s natural to cling to the “home field advantage” in big games, historically this mercurial matchup has ignored location altogether. USC’s last 12 wins in the series are evenly split between Columbia and Athens, as are Georgia’s last 16 wins. What does matter? Like USC, Georgia will have a strong opener playing Clemson and thus will be ready to compete. The Dawgs return nine starters on defense, but lose four-year starting quarterback Aaron Murray. Unfortunately, that again just puts them on a level with Carolina which lost longtime starter Connor Shaw. However, it was the failure of the USC defense that lost this game last season, something that is relatively uncommon in recent years. Perhaps with less of a challenge from the Georgia offense things will return to this new normal, but chances are this one will remain a toss up.
Week four sees Carolina travel for the first time, facing Vanderbilt in Nashville. With five consecutive wins over the Commodores and a general perception of Vandy as mediocre it is tempting to presume an automatic victory for the Gamecocks. However, former coach James Franklin (replaced this season by Derek Mason) turned a 2-10 team into a consecutive 9-win team in his three years at the helm there, including victories in 2013 over both schools that beat USC (Tennessee and Georgia). Not too shabby a performance in the SEC East. Keep in mind that Carolina has only squeaked by Vandy with 4 and 10 point victories in the last two meetings and this first game on the road becomes a little more scary.
Week five kicks off cat season, as the Gamecocks return home to face Missouri, the first of five feline opponents in 2014 (Missouri, Auburn and Clemson Tigers, Kentucky Wildcats and South Alabama Jaguars). While no one can deny Missouri’s success last season, it came out of the blue and appears more a fluke than the result of a strongly built program. The Tigers pushed USC to the limit, but it was Missouri’s games against others that won the East division crown. Losing its quarterback and all of its key receivers, the Tigers return only four offensive starters and five on defense. This is not the team it was last year and things should return to normal quickly, giving USC much more room to breathe in this game.
The first half of the season ends at Kentucky, potentially giving USC five conference wins in just six total games and leaving only three SEC contests on the schedule for the second half. With consecutive 2-10 seasons where all four victories were over cupcakes, there is very little hope for a complete Wildcat turnaround in this one. Go ahead and put a notch in the win column.
Can the Gamecocks cruise through these first six games undefeated? It certainly isn’t out of the question, but neither is it guaranteed regardless of a preseason Top 10 ranking. Next week we’ll take a look at the tricky second half of the schedule, which features a wide range of opponents and potential post-season consequences.