COLUMBIA - Until you sit down and study a schedule, looking over the week-by-week balance and flow of the fall, it's hard to get a good grasp of expectations.
A college football season is evaluated on the overall body of work, the big picture. But a team's resume is built on a weekly basis. There are pauses, ruts, trap games, legitimate chances for a team to catch its collective breath. The composition, how games fall on the schedule, often dictates how the season will go.
It's no different for South Carolina during the 2014 season. Checking the schedule, two observations quickly come to mind.
First, the Gamecocks better take advantage of their home games early, because there are some brutal road trips near the end of the season. Second, if everything falls into place, there's no reason South Carolina can't start their season on a blistering pace - say, 6-1 or even 7-0 - and be well on its way to a fourth straight double-digit win season.
So how does South Carolina's schedule look this fall? Where are the pauses, ruts, trap games and breathers? Here's a week-by-week breakdown of the 2014 opponents.
Game 1 vs. Texas A&M
WHEN: Aug. 28, 6 p.m., SEC Network
Series: First meeting
Las Vegas line: South Carolina is 9-point favorite
The Skinny: After Matt Joeckel transferred this offseason, Texas A&M's quarterback battle will come down to sophomore Kenny Hill and true freshman Kyle Allen. The final decision won't be made until August. Whoever is named the new starting quarterback to replace Johnny Manziel, they'll rely heavily on wide receiver Malcome Kennedy. The Aggies lost a lot of receiver talent to the NFL this offseason. Nine starters return from a defense that couldn't stop a nose bleed last season. They'll have to play better in 2014.
Game 2 vs. East Carolina
WHEN: Sept. 6, 7 p.m., ESPN2
Series: South Carolina leads 12-5
Last meeting: South Carolina 48, East Carolina 10 at Williams-Brice Stadium (Sept. 8, 2012)
Las Vegas line: N/A
The Skinny: There is no more BCS, but East Carolina will enter their first season under the flag of what would've been a BCS conference in another era. The AAC is already building a solid reputation for quality quarterback play with Blake Bortles and Teddy Bridgewater last year, and ECU quarterback Shane Carden could continue where they left off. Carden may not be a first-round talent, but he produces big-time numbers.
Game 3 vs. Georgia
WHEN: Sept. 13, 3:30 p.m., CBS
Series: South Carolina trails 47-17-2
Last meeting: Georgia 41, South Carolina 30 at Sanford Stadium (Sept. 7, 2013)
Las Vegas line: South Carolina is 3-point favorite
The Skinny: Mark Richt, the dean of SEC coaches, represents a rare longevity among college football coaches. His tenure at Georgia almost dates back to the 1990s, and it has seen all kinds of highs and lows. It's no secret why Richt has lasted so long. Under Richt, the Bulldogs have shown a remarkable ability to bounce back from underwhelming seasons. Five times, Georgia has failed to win double-digit games under Richt, including last season. In three of the previous four, Georgia responded by winning at least 10 games the next fall. Georgia will be led by Heisman Trophy candidate tailback Todd Gurley.
Game 4 at Vanderbilt
WHEN: Sept. 20, TBD
Series: South Carolina leads 19-4
Last meeting: South Carolina 35, Vanderbilt 25 at Williams-Brice Stadium (Sept. 14, 2013)
Las Vegas line: N/A
The Skinny: In the big picture, James Franklin falls well short of "legendary" status. Still, he's unquestionably the greatest coach in Vanderbilt's lengthy football history, and it's never easy to replace someone who has earned that distinction. That will be Derek Mason's challenge as he begins his first season in Nashville. Mason, formerly the defensive coordinator at Stanford, brings a toughness to Vanderbilt that should fit nicely in the SEC. With youth and inexperience on defense, the Commodores will need Mason's defensive edge. On offense, it remains to be seen who will replace departed quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels.
Game 5 vs. Missouri
WHEN: Sept. 27, TBD
Series: South Carolina is tied 2-2
Last meeting: South Carolina 27, Missouri 24 in 2OT at Faurot Field (Oct. 26, 2013)
Las Vegas line: South Carolina is 11-point favorite
The Skinny: The feedback was unkind following Missouri's first season in the SEC, when the Tigers finished an embarrassing 2-6 in conference play. No longer in James Franklin's shadows, sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk will assume control of the program that rebounded last season, with an SEC East title and heartbreaker against Auburn in the SEC Championship Game. Missouri will hope to get revenge from last season's shocking loss to USC. The Gamecocks erased a 17-point deficit in the fourth quarter to win in double overtime.
Game 6 at Kentucky
WHEN: Oct. 4, TBD
Series: South Carolina leads 17-7-1
Last meeting: South Carolina 35, Kentucky 28 at Williams-Brice Stadium (Oct. 5, 2013)
Las Vegas line: N/A
The Skinny: When Kentucky lost all eight SEC games in its first year under Mark Stoops, fans barely blinked. They were used to it. The Wildcats had the same futility in 2012 and have lost 16 straight SEC games. Still, there is one region of college football in which Kentucky has lived in the top 25. Stoops has been a major upgrade on the recruiting trail, attracting much-needed talent to a dormant program. With returning veterans on offense, there's reason to hope the SEC drought could end this fall.
Game 7 vs. Furman
WHEN: Oct. 18, TBD
Series: South Carolina leads 27-20-1
Last meeting: South Carolina 38, Furman 19 at Williams-Brice Stadium (Sept. 18, 2010)
Las Vegas line: N/A
The Skinny: Furman is no stranger to major opponents, playing Clemson in 2012 and LSU in 2013. The Paladins lost those two games by a combined score of 99-23. If you're going to watch/attend this game, and you're looking for one opposing player to keep an eye on, it's senior tailback Hank McCloud. As a junior, McCloud had 1,092 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
Game 8 at Auburn
WHEN: Oct. 25, TBD
Series: South Carolina trails 9-1
Last meeting: Auburn 16, South Carolina 13 at Jordan-Hare Stadium (Oct. 1, 2011)
Las Vegas line: South Carolina a 7-point underdog
The Skinny: Auburn generated two of the most memorable plays in college football history last season: The Prayer at Jordan-Hare against Georgia, and Kick Six against Alabama. They were signature moments in a miracle season, which included a run to the national championship game. Under first-year coach Gus Malzahn, Auburn rushed for 4,596 yards in 2013, approximately 2.6 miles. That's more yards than Navy and Army, service academies running the triple option. Nobody could stop the Tigers running game, so nobody could stop them. If the Gamecocks want to beat Auburn this fall, they better expect a shootout.
Game 9 vs. Tennessee
WHEN: Nov. 1, TBD
Series: South Carolina trails 23-7-2
Last meeting: Tennessee 23, South Carolina 21 at Neyland Stadium (Oct. 19, 2013)
Las Vegas line: South Carolina 18-point favorite
The Skinny: Tennessee will have one of the toughest stretches any team in the country will face this season, closing September with trips to Oklahoma and Georgia in consecutive games. It's not an optimal start for a program sitting in a historical rut. Tennessee has finished with losing records four straight seasons for the first time in program history, and the program has been alive since 1891. Things won't get easier this fall, not after losing much of its offensive line and tailback Rajion Neal.
Game 10 at Florida
WHEN: Nov. 15, TBD
Series: South Carolina trails 24-7-3
Last meeting: South Carolina 19, Florida 14 at Williams-Brice Stadium (Nov. 16, 2013)
Las Vegas line: South Carolina 6-point favorite
The Skinny: Eighteen months ago, all was well in Will Muschamp's world. Then the Gators got smashed by Louisville in New Orleans, finished with their worst season in three decades last fall, and Muschamp enters this season on the hot seat. Though the Gators were picked to finish third in the SEC East, it's difficult to describe how bad Florida's offense was last fall. With increased scoring across the country, the Gators averaged fewer than 20 points per game. They'll turn to Jeff Driskel to be the starting quarterback again this fall, not that it gives any comfort to Florida fans.
Game 11 vs. South Alabama
WHEN: Nov. 22, TBD
Series: First meeting
Las Vegas line: N/A
The Skinny: South Alabama didn't begin playing football until 2009, and it didn't move up to the Football Bowl Subdivision until 2012. That season, the Jaguars finished 2-11. It finished 6-6 last season and has legitimate Sun Belt championship aspirations this fall. Along its climb, South Alabama has been a headache for good opponents. It will bring perhaps the best offensive line in the Sun Belt and a stable of capable running backs to Williams-Brice Stadium.
Game 12 at Clemson
WHEN: Nov. 29, TBD
Series: South Carolina trails 65-42-4
Last meeting: South Carolina 31, Clemson 17 at Williams-Brice Stadium (Nov. 30, 2013)
Las Vegas line: South Carolina 3-point favorite
The Skinny: South Carolina and Clemson find themselves in similar quarterback situations this offseason, but the difference between Dylan Thompson and Cole Stoudt is vast. Thompson has big-game experience. He'll enter the season with more wins as a starting quarterback at Memorial Stadium than Stoudt. Clemson defensive end Vic Beasley had Jadeveon Clowney-esque numbers last fall, leading the ACC with 13 sacks. This season, he'll lead one of the best defensive lines in the nation. Clemson led college football with 123 tackles for loss last season, and 98.5 tackles for loss return to the roster.
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