COLUMBIA - South Carolina ripped through its non-conference season like a knife slicing butter, barely slowing down even as it swept Clemson in a three-game series.

The Gamecocks' 16-0 start has come with dominance, befitting the nation's No. 1 team. Eleven wins were by at least four runs. Nine victories were shutouts. Only once - against then No. 11 Clemson - has South Carolina allowed more than four runs in a game.

"It's been awesome for me," junior catcher Grayson Greiner said. "I kind of just sit there, put my glove up and those guys hit the spot."

Then, Greiner reasoned.

"It's really cool, but the strength of schedule that we've played so far isn't what we're going to see now," he said. "We're going to need those (pitchers) to compete every game, just like we're going to compete at the plate for them. It's going to be much more difficult now."

The whispers have followed South Carolina throughout its unblemished non-conference season. Even as the Gamecocks climbed to No. 1 in the polls, even as they swept Clemson for the first time in three decades, questions about their strength of schedule persist.

Overall, the nation's only remaining undefeated team hasn't had a difficult road. Other than Clemson, South Carolina played just two opponents in the top 150. They were Eastern Kentucky and Brown. The Gamecocks tossed shutouts in all six games, winning by a combined 34-0.

South Carolina has played three games against the RPI top 50. Only two SEC teams - LSU and Missouri - have played fewer.

"I think we've played some solid people," Holbrook said, noting Stetson beat No. 13 Miami 10-7 on Wednesday, a week after USC won two games against the Hatters. "It's college baseball. I don't think we've had the hardest strength of schedule by any stretch of the imagination up to this point. We've played some teams we certainly should beat, but we've also played a few good teams. And we won all the games that we've played."

Now, the degree of difficulty rises.

In South Carolina's next 40 games, 30 will be against SEC teams. The Gamecocks open their conference season with a three-game series against No. 21 Ole Miss, beginning 7 p.m. Friday at Carolina Stadium. South Carolina will have three series against ranked teams over the next three weekends, including a trip to No. 20 Kentucky next week.

Finally, the Gamecocks' vaunted pitching staff will see a fair fight. Rebels pitcher Chris Ellis will make his fifth start of the season Friday. He hasn't allowed a run in the previous four.

"We're going to have to handle adversity, which we talk about all the time. We're not going to just show up and it be easy," Holbrook said. "We'll probably have to come from behind a game or two. We're going to get tested. I look forward to seeing how they stand up to that test.

"Your manhood is challenged week to week to week in this league. That's how it is, and it will certainly be challenged right out of the gate (Friday)."

Holbrook knows how his team can respond. It's what the critics miss as they pick apart South Carolina's strength of schedule. Holbrook has seen the Gamecocks deal with tough opponents in tougher situations this spring, most notably against Clemson.

So far, they've met success every time.

Greiner said he leans on those experiences against the Tigers two weeks ago. They give him confidence, knowing this team has already prevailed in big moments, the kind it's bound to see again soon.

"In the SEC . you've got to find a way to win and battle through adversity," Greiner said. "We were down five runs in one game, we were down two runs in the ninth in another - those are situations that will happen in the SEC. So that definitely helps us. And the experience that we have on the field and on the mound helps us too."