South Carolina is coming off a season that included exciting victories over SEC rivals Georgia and Florida plus a bowl win. Such a trifecta was achieved only once before (2011) and would have triggered parade talk before Steve Spurrier signed on as head coach.
And yet the Gamecocks and their fans were far from satisfied with the 7-6 record notched in a dark shadow of three straight 11-2 seasons.
Oh, what might have been with freshman quarterback Deshaun Watson taking all the snaps at Florida State and Georgia Tech.
The 2015 schedules are daunting, the missing pieces scattered about NFL training camps. But with a few fewer fourth-quarter collapses at South Carolina and better injury luck at Clemson, the programs will clash on Nov. 28 in Columbia with higher bowl hopes than last year.
Elsewhere around the state, it’s up to FCS teams to keep up with Coastal Carolina and S.C. State.
The fearless forecast:
Vic Beasley and Grady Jarrett have gone down I-85 to the Atlanta Falcons’ defensive line, which means less pressure on opposing passers and more heat on the Clemson offense to rattle the scoreboard.
How much the deep secondary talent allows a rebuilt defensive line to mature alongside Shaq Lawson will go a long way in determining how the Tigers handle an early Louisville-Notre Dame-Georgia Tech obstacle course.
If former ringmaster Chad Morris is mentioned only in SMU updates, the Clemson offense and new co-coordinators Tony Elliott and Jeff Scott have done their jobs.
Sure wins: Wofford (Sept. 5), Appalachian State (Sept. 12), at Syracuse (Nov. 14), Wake Forest (Nov. 21).
Sure losses: None.
Probable wins: Boston College (Oct. 17), at Miami (Oct. 24).
Probable losses: None.
Trap game alert: at N.C. State (Oct. 31).
Helmet scratchers: at Louisville (Sept. 17), Notre Dame (Oct. 3), Georgia Tech (Oct. 10), Florida State (Nov. 7), at South Carolina (Nov. 28).
Barometer game: A Thursday night trip to Louisville.
Record: 11-2 including a Peach Bowl or Fiesta Bowl trip available if that College Football Playoff plan falls through.
Sophomore Connor Mitch isn’t likely to maintain the relative quarterback reliability South Carolina fans enjoyed over the last six seasons of Stephen Garcia, Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson. Expect Spurrier to address that with a creatively designed kitchen sink, including formations featuring true freshman Lorenzo Nunez taking snaps with Pharoh Cooper lurking as his hybrid All-SEC receiver candidate/trick-play passer self.
New pass rusher Marquavius Lewis and underrated linebackers Jonathan Walton and Skai Moore will see to it that the defense is better. But it has to be a lot better than the unit that opened by giving up 680 yards to Texas A&M last season and finished 13th in the SEC in total defense.
Sure wins: Vanderbilt (Oct. 17), The Citadel (Nov. 21).
Sure losses: None.
Probable wins: Kentucky (Sept. 12), Florida (Nov. 14).
Probable losses: at Georgia (Sept. 19), at Missouri (Oct. 3).
Trap game alert: Central Florida (Sept. 26).
Helmet scratchers: vs. North Carolina in Charlotte (Sept. 3), LSU (Oct. 10), at Texas A&M (Oct. 31), at Tennessee (Nov. 7), Clemson (Nov. 28).
Barometer game: Right away against the Tar Heels.
Record: 8-5 with something better than a Shreveport bowl.
The Bulldogs won three of their last four games to finish 5-7 in 2014. Mike Houston’s second season as head coach theoretically comes with comfort that transfers to success, even as foes adjust to an approach that produced 4,166 rushing yards last season (third-best in school history behind 1992 and 1994).
The Buccaneers aren’t timid. Jamey Chadwell is aiming for a Big South Conference championship after winning 18 games over his first two seasons as head coach. The regular season finale is at Alabama.
CSU gets Big South favorite Coastal Carolina at home on Halloween. By then, quarterback Austin Brown and friends hope to be ready to play the Chanticleers for first place.
Record: 8-3 with a shot at an FCS playoff trip.
North Carolina A&T is picked to win the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference but the Bulldogs should be a close second, at least. A defense led by FCS All-American candidate defensive tackle Javon Hargrave is solid. S.C. State has its starting quarterback (Adrian Kollock Jr.), leading rusher (Jalen Simmons) and top receivers (Taquan West and Temarrick Hemingway) back from an 8-4 finish in 2014.
A Sept. 12 home game against Coastal Carolina looks like fun.
Record: 9-2 with a Celebration Bowl (MEAC champ vs. SWAC champ) bid riding on the Nov. 7 home game against North Carolina A&T.
That the Paladins have 19 starters back but are picked to finish fifth in the SoCon doesn’t say much about those 19 starters.
The Terriers have 21 full or part-time starters back, including junior quarterback Evan Jacks and nine others on Mike Ayers’ Wingbone offense. Wofford went 6-5 last year, 4-3 in the SoCon.
Only North Dakota State has won more FCS games than the Chanticleers over head coach Joe Moglia’s last two seasons (12-3, 12-2). The Big South favorites are back with veteran quarterback/MBA student Alex Ross and running back De’Angelo Henderson (1,534 yards in 2014) leading the way.
Record: 11-0, FCS playoffs
The Blue Hose went 6-5 last year, the school’s best Division I record. Foes were held to 14 points or less in all six wins, including 7-3 over Charleston Southern. Linebacker Donelle Williams and cornerback Ed Britt will keep up the good work.
Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff