Early road swing will set tone for Gamecocks’ season

South Carolina and Clemson fans fill Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia for the annual rivalry football game. Both schools must try to raise money from donors who will lose all of the 80-percent tax deduction on any purchase of seat licenses or the right to buy tickets they previously had before the new tax law was passed. File/Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina

COLUMBIA — Nothing promises to be easy for Will Muschamp in his first season as South Carolina’s head football coach. The roster needs an infusion of talent. Expectations are low, given the Gamecocks have been picked to finish last in the SEC East. And the schedule offers no favors for a team that needs any help it can get.

Three straight road games to open the SEC season may have looked manageable when former head coach Steve Spurrier had things humming along, but for a fragile, rebuilding team trying to find itself, they loom as an immediate and potentially backbreaking hurdle. None of those opponents — Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Kentucky — are unbeatable. But against a team coming off a 1-7 league slate, they don’t necessarily have to be.

It’s almost cruel that South Carolina’s most winnable SEC games are on the road and frontloaded, arriving at a time when this Gamecocks squad promises to be at its most vulnerable. Five straight home games await down the line, but so does a more rugged run of conference opponents. As it is, these Gamecocks will have to find themselves on the road.

WHO: at Vanderbilt

WHEN: Sept. 1, 8 p.m.

SERIES: USC leads, 21-4

LAST MEETING: USC 19, Vanderbilt 10 in Columbia (Oct. 17, 2015)

VEGAS LINE: Vanderbilt by 3

THE SKINNY: It was a confident Vandy group at SEC Media Days, belying last season’s 4-8 record and loss at USC in the chaos following Spurrier’s resignation. But the defense made huge strides last season after head coach Derek Mason also took the reins as coordinator, running back Ralph Webb is as solid as it gets, and for once, the ‘Dores have a clear-cut starting quarterback in Kyle Shurmur, something they’ve badly lacked the past two seasons.

WHO: at Mississippi State

WHEN: Sept. 10, 7 p.m.

SERIES: Mississippi State leads, 9-6

LAST MEETING: USC 34, Mississippi State 16 in Columbia (Nov. 2, 2013)

VEGAS LINE: Mississippi State by 9½

THE SKINNY: USC had the fortune to miss quarterback Dak Prescott, the greatest player in Mississippi State history. While Prescott had a hand in 73 percent of MSU’s offense last season, the Bulldogs have won 19 games over the last two years and return a number of starters — including their top running back and much of their offensive line and defense — accustomed to success. This game on paper is one thing. In the cowbell-clanging din of Starkville, it’s something very different.

WHO: East Carolina

WHEN: Sept. 17, 4 p.m.

SERIES: USC leads, 13-5

LAST MEETING: USC 33, East Carolina 23 in Columbia (Sept. 6, 2014)

VEGAS LINE: None posted

THE SKINNY: A needed home respite against an East Carolina team without former head coach Ruffin McNeill, surprisingly fired after going 42-33 in six seasons. The new guy is Scottie Montgomery, formerly offensive coordinator at Duke, which averaged 31.5 points per game last season. While his scheme should fit the personnel McNeill recruited to run his version of the Air Raid, there are questions at quarterback and elsewhere for a Pirates program in transition.

WHO: at Kentucky

WHEN: Sept. 24

SERIES: Kentucky leads, 17-9-1

LAST MEETING: Kentucky 26, USC 22 in Columbia (Sept. 12, 2015)

VEGAS LINE: None posted

THE SKINNY: Losses to the Wildcats have played pivotal roles in each of USC’s last two seasons, and that prospect arises again when the road-weary Gamecocks arrive in Lexington. Drew Barker takes over at quarterback in Kentucky and has capable skill players in Boom Williams and Jojo Kemp. Head coach Mark Stoops has caught some heat after collapses to end the past two seasons, so the Wildcats will want this one badly, and it’s another game that will be more difficult in reality than it appears right now.

WHO: Texas A&M

WHEN: Oct. 1

SERIES: Texas A&M leads, 2-0

LAST MEETING: Texas A&M 35, USC 28 in College Station, Texas (Oct. 31, 2015)

VEGAS LINE: None posted

THE SKINNY: The good news is, USC at last comes home for six weeks, five games plus an open date. The bad news is the schedule gets more difficult, beginning with a Texas A&M team loaded at the skill positions and capable of sneaking up on some people in the SEC West. If Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight can provide some needed stability at quarterback and the Aggies can find a running game, defensive end Myles Garrett, receivers Christian Kirk and Ricky Seals-Jones, and safety Armani Watts can do the rest.

WHO: Georgia

WHEN: Oct. 8

SERIES: Georgia leads, 48-18-2

LAST MEETING: Georgia 52, USC 20 in Athens, Ga. (Sept. 19, 2015)

VEGAS LINE: None posted

THE SKINNY: Did we mention the schedule gets more difficult? While Georgia’s offseason was dominated by a spate of arrests and questions about the health of top running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, this remains a Top 25 team. Chubb should be fully recovered from his 2015 knee injury by the time the Bulldogs visit Williams-Brice. Head coach Kirby Smart needs to find some pieces on defense, and a quarterback (freshman Nick Eason?) needs to emerge, but Georgia still has enough talent to contend at the top of the division.

WHO: Massachusetts

WHEN: Oct. 22

SERIES: First meeting

VEGAS LINE: None posted

THE SKINNY: Talk about a program in transition: UMass has gone 3-9 in each of the past two seasons and is now playing as an independent after its membership in the MAC was terminated after last year (rather than join the league in all sports, they struck out on their own). It’s been quite the slog for the former FCS power, which in 2014 brought back Mark Whipple, the head coach who led the Minutemen to plenty of success (including a national championship) at the lower level.

WHO: Tennessee

WHEN: Oct. 29

SERIES: Tennessee leads, 25-7-2

LAST MEETING: Tennessee 27, USC 24 in Knoxville, Tenn. (Nov. 7, 2015)

VEGAS LINE: None posted

THE SKINNY: Tennessee returns 19 starters on a team that’s won two straight New Year’s bowl games and is unquestionably poised for something bigger this year. Head coach Butch Jones has been building toward this season, in which the Vols are clear favorites to win the SEC East. Senior Joshua Dobbs is the best quarterback in the league (sorry, Ole Miss fans) due to his dual-threat ability, and there’s proven talent all over the field. If Jones doesn’t out-think himself in the waning moments of tight games, watch out.

Game 9

WHO: Missouri

WHEN: Nov. 5

SERIES: Missouri leads, 4-2

LAST MEETING: Missouri 24, South Carolina 10 in Columbia, Mo. (Oct. 3, 2015)

VEGAS LINE: None posted

THE SKINNY: The toughest rebuilding job in the SEC? It’s not at South Carolina — it’s at Missouri. The administration is in disarray, the AD left for Baylor, the football facilities are outdated and the school has seen such a drop in enrollment that some dorms are reportedly being shut down. Former head coach Gary Pinkel, architect of two SEC East titles, resigned after being diagnosed with lymphoma. Former defensive coordinator Barry Odom takes over a program that went 1-7 in the SEC last season, has no natural recruiting advantages and faces a long road ahead.

WHO: at Florida

WHEN: Nov. 12

SERIES: Florida leads, 25-8-3

LAST MEETING: Florida 24, USC 14 in Columbia (Nov. 14, 2015)

VEGAS LINE: None posted

THE SKINNY: Muschamp deserves a ring after last season’s SEC East title, given it was defensive players who got the Gators to the SEC Championship game. With five defensive starters lost, the onus falls more on head coach Jim McElwain’s offense, which last season was a work in progress. A lot of teams need a quarterback, and Florida is one of them, and freshman Luke Del Rio appears the leading candidate. This season should offer a clearer look at what a McElwain team will resemble.

WHO: Western Carolina

WHEN: Nov. 19

SERIES: USC leads, 4-0

LAST MEETING: USC 24, Western Carolina 3 in Columbia (Oct. 21, 1989)

VEGAS LINE: None posted

THE SKINNY: The game was supposed to be South Carolina State, continuing USC’s tradition of playing in-state FCS opponents, but the Bulldogs asked for the contest to be postponed and Western was the next-best thing with an opening on its schedule. USC catches the Catamounts on the upswing, given that they’ve won seven games in each of the past two seasons. But they no longer have quarterback Troy Mitchell, who finished his career last season as the school’s all-time leader in touchdown passes and total offense.

WHO: at Clemson

WHEN: Nov. 26

SERIES: Clemson leads, 67-42-4

LAST MEETING: Clemson 37, USC 32 in Columbia (Nov. 28, 2015)

VEGAS LINE: Clemson by 20½

THE SKINNY: Before last season’s finale, there were some South Carolina fans honestly concerned the 63-17 rout of 2003 would be eclipsed. The Gamecocks kept that from happening thanks to a spirited effort against the nation’s No. 1 team, but the real worries should be over this season’s rivalry game — at Death Valley, and almost certainly the last home performance for Heisman-contending quarterback Deshaun Watson. The Tigers have a record number of All-ACC players returning, skill all over the field and their eyes set on a return to the national championship game. USC may have made all kinds of progress leading up to Nov. 26, and it still might not matter.