Gene Sapakoff is the oldest, fastest, hardest-hitting sports journalist in S.C. As columnist at The Post and Courier he covers Clemson, South Carolina and other interesting things. He likes food and has won the prestigious Judson Chapman Award 3 times.

Clemson South Carolina (copy)

South Carolina and Clemson open their college football seasons on September 4, 2021. The Gamecocks play host to Eastern Illinois; Clemson plays Georgia in Charlotte. Travis Bell/Sideline Carolina

The tweaked Clemson offensive line has players who struggled at times in 2020, including key parts of a 49-28 loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl. But Tigers blockers got to improve in preseason drills by taking practice lumps against an elite, deep Clemson defensive line as deployed by master defensive coordinator Brent Venables.

“There’s so many different looks they present,” said Matt Bockhorst, likely to start at center for Clemson after starting at guard. “It really stretches you physically and intellectually.”

Here’s the problem for a South Carolina defense hoping to improve on a 2-8 season in which the Gamecocks allowed 36 points per game, 12th in the SEC: a wide-eyed quarterback room.

A student named Holton Ahlers of East Carolina, South Carolina’s second opponent of the season, isn’t the best quarterback in the American Athletic Conference. But he’s better than anyone the Gamecocks’ defense has seen in practice.

Still, there are reasons to believe in new head coach Shane Beamer’s optimism, including organization-wide optimism itself.

2021 predictions for all nine of the Palmetto State’s NCAA Division I college football teams, including one with 82 freshmen on its roster:

Clemson

The Georgia game projects as the toughest opener in Dabo Swinney’s 14 seasons as head coach.

“Talking season is soon to be over,” Bockhorst said. “You’re either going to talk about it or be about it.”

Clemson will be undefeated in ACC play with a conference schedule soft even by ACC standards (no North Carolina, Miami, Virginia or Virginia Tech – at least not in the regular season).

The only thing that can derail a seventh straight College Football Playoff appearance is an injury bug, with backup quarterback a major concern.

Sure wins: S.C. State (Sept. 11), Georgia Tech (Sept. 18), at Syracuse (Oct. 15), Florida State (Oct. 30), Louisville (Nov. 6), Connecticut (Nov. 13), Wake Forest (Nov. 20), at South Carolina (Nov. 27)

Sure losses: None

Probable wins: at N.C. State (Sept. 25), Boston College (Oct. 2), at Pittsburgh (Oct. 23)

Probable losses: None

Helmet scratchers: vs. Georgia (Sept. 4)

Trap game alert: Boston College (Oct. 2)

Barometer game: Right away

Record: 14-1 with a national championship game loss in Indianapolis (but wait till season in L.A.!)

South Carolina

The Eastern Illinois game is probably the easiest opener for South Carolina since the Gamecocks beat Newberry (46-0) in 1948.

Myrtle Beach native Luke Doty and St. Francis (Pa.) transfer Jason Brown are good stories, but grad assistant-turned-potential starter Zeb Noland is a movie marketers dream (featuring former North Dakota State teammate Trey Lance as himself).

The over-under on the number of quarterbacks that play against the FCS Panthers is 3.5, but what matters more is who gets anointed after the Sept. 18 loss at Georgia.

Because the Gamecocks’ season really begins Sept. 25 at home against Kentucky.

Three wins isn’t a bad guess.

Four more likely.

Five qualifies as relative overachievement.

This team might not be good enough to get to a bowl game, but it’s capable of an upset or two, which should keep the Gamecocks in the mix for lower-tier SEC fun such as the Gasparilla Bowl in Tampa.

Sure wins: Eastern Illinois (Sept. 4), Vanderbilt (Oct. 15)

Sure losses: at Georgia (Sept. 18), at Texas A&M (Oct. 23), Clemson (Nov. 27)

Probable wins: Troy (Oct. 2)

Probable losses: Florida (Nov. 6), at Missouri (Nov. 13), Auburn (Nov. 20)

Helmet scratchers: at East Carolina (Sept. 11), Kentucky (Sept. 25), at Tennessee (Oct. 9)

Trap game alert: Troy (Oct. 2)

Barometer game: Kentucky (Sept. 25)

Record: 5-7

Coastal Carolina

An 11-1 record highlighted by a hastily arranged home win over Zach Wilson and BYU in 2020 gets quarterback Grayson McCall and pals a TV-heavy 2021 schedule with games on four different days of the week.

These Chanticleers are up to the challenge.

Record: 12-2 including a Sun Belt Championship Game and bowl game

The Citadel

Head coach Brent Thompson, to limit distractions, moved many of the Bulldogs’ preseason practices from campus to Johnson Hagood Stadium a few blocks away.

All-America linebacker Willie Eubanks III leads a potentially stout defense, and quarterback Jaylan Adams and the rest of the offense should be better than the 2-6 spring season performance indicates.

Still, this is a young team in a Southern Conference full of switchbacks.

Record: 5-6

Charleston Southern

Modest momentum is a two-game win streak for head coach Autry Denson and the Buccaneers at the end of the 2021 spring season. The defense, led by safety Cody Cline and linemen Anton Williams and Shaundre Mims, should shine.

The non-conference schedule includes games at The Citadel, East Carolina and Georgia.

Record: 5-6

S.C. State

This could be a big year for the Bulldogs, an MEAC favorite with a chance to get an FBS victory at New Mexico State (No. 125 in analyst Phil Steele’s national preseason rankings). The veteran-laden team is led by quarterback Corey Fields Jr. (Baptist Hill High School).

Record: 9-2 and then some postseason fun

Furman

The Paladins are better than the lackluster 3-4 spring finish. Look for a heavy dose of (still underrated) running back Devin Wynn on Saturdays and for Furman to stay in the SoCon title hunt.

Record: 6-5

Wofford

Though just 21 months removed from a home FBS playoff game (loss to Kennesaw State in 2019), the Terriers were picked seventh in the nine-team SoCon preseason poll. With 19 starters returning and the triple-options still hard to stop, head coach Josh Conklin will lean on an offensive line led by steady seniors Zak Kurz and Al Hogan.

Record: 4-7

Presbyterian

This should be fun: the Blue Hose along with moving to a non-scholarship brand of FCS football in the Pioneer Football League have hired former Arkansas high school coach Kevin Kelley, famed (and lauded by the likes of Bill Belichick) for his “never punt” mantra of football analytics.

Nine state titles says Kelley knows what he’s doing, but the transition from scholarship football gives Presbyterian a roster with 82 freshman or redshirt freshmen.

Record: 6-5

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff

2021 poll numbers

Where the Palmetto State’s nine NCAA Division I football teams are picked to finish in their respective conference preseason polls:

Clemson (ACC), 1st in ACC Atlantic, ACC champions

South Carolina (SEC), 6th in SEC East

Coastal Carolina (Sun Belt), tied for 1st with Appalachian State in Sun Belt East

The Citadel (Southern), 8th

Charleston Southern (Big South), 4th

S.C. State (Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference), 1st

Furman (Southern), tied for 3rd

Wofford (Southern), 7th

Presbyterian (Pioneer), 5th