Gene Sapakoff is a columnist and College Sports Editor at The Post and Courier.

Will Muschamp (copy)

South Carolina football coach Will Muschamp was in Mount Pleasant on Tuesday as part of his Spurs Up Tour. Brad Nettles/Staff

The Kickin’ Chicken catering truck parked outside Harborside East in Mount Pleasant insured a yummy Spurs Up Tour spread for South Carolina football fans showing up to see head coach Will Muschamp this week. Chatter about the Gamecocks’ 2019 schedule wasn’t as tasty.

Clemson and Alabama are heavy favorites to make the College Football Playoff with Georgia high up in the next tier of best bets. Whether or not those three teams finish 1-2-3 in the rankings, such a schedule challenge is a rare thing.

South Carolina will likely find out what it was like for Big Eight teams in 1971 when the final Associated Press poll looked like this:

1. Nebraska (13-0)

2. Oklahoma (11-1)

3. Colorado (10-2)

That was the year William Muschamp was born in Rome, Ga.

“At the end of the day you come to a place like South Carolina and you come to the Southeastern Conference to play against the best people in the country,” Muschamp said when I asked him about the schedule buzz. “Right now those three are on top of college football if you want to look at the last three or four years. All three of those programs have been outstanding. We embrace it.”

That’s a great approach.

But Muschamp knows smart fans and persistent pundits won’t judge his fourth season at South Carolina on what happens against the three heavyweights.

The real 2019 schedule trio to worry about, in chronological order:

1. North Carolina

When: Aug. 31

Where: Charlotte

Theme: Snap the ACC losing streak

2. Kentucky

When: Sept. 28

Where: Columbia

Theme: Stop the madness

3. Tennessee

When: Oct. 26

Where: Knoxville

Theme: Extend the madness

North Carolina

Returning to the scene of the Belk Bowl crime, the Gamecocks don’t just need a win here, they need a romp. South Carolina is in the midst of a three-game ACC stretch having already lost to Clemson (56-35) and Virginia (28-0).

Mack Brown’s renovated Tar Heels are splendidly cast as a launch pad that gives the Gamecocks a much-needed confidence boost coming off a 7-6 season.

Bullishness is based on South Carolina strides at the three most important spots in major college football:

The Gamecocks for the first time under Muschamp should have three-deep talent on the defensive line, led by Javon Kinlaw (Goose Creek High School), D.J. Wonnum and (eventually) bluechip freshman Zacch Pickens.

Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu are a potentially excellent cornerback duo.

Quarterback present (Jake Bentley) and future (probably Ryan Hilinski but maybe Dakereon Joyner) are in good shape.

Kentucky

Scientists who study the natural order of the SEC East insist Kentucky shouldn’t be as good at football as South Carolina. And yet, sure as John Calipari brings in one-and-done basketball players by the SUV load, the Wildcats have won five straight against the Gamecocks (the last three on Muschamp’s watch).

South Carolina with an improved defense should be a little better this year.

Kentucky without edge rusher Josh Allen (Jacksonville Jaguars first-round NFL draft pick) and running back Benny Snell (a Pittsburgh Steelers steal in the fourth round) should be a little worse.

Tennessee

Tennessee fans are saying about South Carolina what South Carolina fans are saying about Kentucky.

Ah, the Butch Jones years and lingering impact.

Maintaining an edge over Jeremy Pruitt’s rebuilding Vols is critical for the Gamecocks in the delicate SEC East ecosystem. Muschamp, a former Georgia safety, went 17-15 in SEC games in four seasons at Florida (28-21 overall) and is 12-12 in SEC games after three seasons at South Carolina (22-17 overall).

Muschamp’s seven-year record vs. Tennessee?

Perfect.

Dining on nicknames

Not that there isn’t great value in playing Clemson, Alabama and Georgia.

For coaches: “Hey, you guys on scholarship, we consulted with Bill Belichick and have come up with the best NFL preparation schedule imaginable. Remember, the videotape is always rolling.”

For the marketing department: “Buy season tickets! Come and see both Alabama and Clemson without having to drive to Arizona, Tampa, New Orleans or California! Or New Orleans again this season!”

It’s not Muschamp’s fault that Clemson and Georgia are really good, or that Alabama head coach Nick Saban will remember in detail a 2010 upset loss in Columbia while preparing to return in September of 2019.

Most people seemed to get that during Spurs Up Tour stops this spring.

“You get one negative question and that’s all you guys (the media) want to talk about is one negative question,” Muschamp said. “But it’s been ultra-positive. We have the most passionate fanbase in the country. It’s great to get out and see them. They want to win and we want to bring a championship to Columbia for them because of their support for us and it’s been awesome going into our fourth year.”

Back to that tremendously smelling Kickin’ Chicken rig …

How many college football fan bases regularly eat food extracted from some version of their own team nickname?

Yes: Texas, Colorado, Oregon.

No: Navy, Wake Forest, Temple.

Maybe: Florida, TCU, Minnesota.

But just know that the 2019 schedule will eat the Gamecocks alive if there is too much focus on Clemson, Alabama and Georgia. 

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff

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