NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Perhaps the most anticipated season in the history of South Carolina football begins tonight, when the Gamecocks play at Vanderbilt at 7, in a fittingly critical game.

Coming off a school-best 11-2 record in 2011, the Gamecocks are ranked higher in the preseason than ever before, No. 9.

Tonight’s matchup with a Southeastern Conference East Division opponent — just their third opener against an SEC team since 1995 — gives them a chance for a positive start in their pursuit of their second ever berth in the conference championship game.

Tonight also marks the return of USC’s best offensive player, tailback Marcus Lattimore, a potential Heisman Trophy candidate whose 2011 season ended in the seventh game because of a knee injury.

There is no telling how Lattimore will rebound from the injury and layoff in a game setting, but his coaches are hopeful, based on what they saw from him in preseason scrimmages. They believe he can handle a workload of 25 or so carries.

There are 15 college football games tonight — the sport’s opening night. USC-Vanderbilt is by far the biggest. Are the Gamecocks up to the stage?