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South Carolina needs Jake Bentley take another step forward in his third year as the starting quarterback. File/John A. Carlos II/Special to The Post and Courier

COLUMBIA — The first year was taking what they could get. The second saw their hopes end in the third game.

Many people inside and outside of the South Carolina football program believe that winning an SEC championship some day is at best a dream, but head coach Will Muschamp never thought that way. Having been on championship staffs throughout his career, Muschamp knows what it takes to get there — and he knows what most know about his third team.

The Gamecocks have a great chance to get to Atlanta, and if they get to the SEC championship game, well, it’s one game. You never can tell which way an oval ball will bounce, as evidenced by Georgia breaking an eight-year SEC East losing streak in the title game last season against an Auburn team that thrashed it, 40-17, three weeks before.

“Our guys have that mindset and really understand what we have to do,” said Muschamp, who enters his third season as the Gamecocks' head coach with a 15-11 record. “Team and individual goals are great, but understanding how we achieve those goals and the work it is going to take to achieve those goals, if you don’t understand that process, then it doesn’t matter.”

If the Gamecocks are going to reach the SEC championship game, here's what can and cannot happen:

What must go right

• The Gamecocks must stay healthy. USC lost most of its third-down playbook and at least half of its offensive capability when wide receiver/kick returner Deebo Samuel was lost in the third game last year. With top running back Rico Dowdle and three offensive linemen also missing much of the season, it’s a wonder USC still managed to win nine games.

• Quarterback Jake Bentley needs to step up. He has won some games and thrown for a passel of yards, but he still doesn’t have that “big” win and his turnovers have got to decrease. It’s true he’s still playing a year behind where he should have been, but he’s been under center for 20 games. He’s grown and has to keep growing.

• The defensive backs bend, but don't break. USC’s defense is very thin at some spots, particularly safety. It may be unfair to ask Jamyest Williams and Steven Montac to helm that position all season and do it well, but USC doesn’t have much else. If a deep ball gets past the Gamecocks early, they have to get the next one so it doesn’t become a trend.

• Beat Georgia. The Week 2 matchup against Georgia at Williams-Brice Stadium is the key to the title hopes. The winner has basically a two-game lead on the division counting the tiebreaker, and USC would have the easiest road after that. If the Gamecocks win, they have the rare opportunity to stub their toe once and still make it to Atlanta.

What can’t go wrong

• The offense can't stall. The focus all year will be on coordinator Bryan McClendon’s offense, which promises faster pace and more production. If it doesn’t work right away and USC shows signs of abandoning it to go back to more “traditional” (read: predictable) play-calling, there will be a lot of questions if the offense will ever get right.

•  An injury to Bentley would be a back-breaker. Muschamp says he’s confident in backup quarterback Michael Scarnecchia and that the two No. 3 candidates, Jay Urich and Dakereon Joyner, can bring different styles to the position. But everyone knows that if Bentley goes down, he takes the season with him.

• A loss at Kentucky. There is no way around this, losing to Kentucky four years in a row is absurd. The Gamecocks cannot lose this year, despite the Wildcats looking strong and the game being played in Lexington. Especially if USC beats Georgia, a loss to Kentucky starts the road to squandering momentum.

• Living on the edge. The Gamecocks won five games last year with a defensive stop in the final 90 seconds. They won a sixth by getting 14 shades of lucky to top Louisiana Tech at home. The breaks will start beating the boys again, eventually.

South Carolina Gamecocks

Head coach: Will Muschamp, 15-11 in 2 seasons at USC

Last year: 9-4 overall (5-3 SEC)

Returning starters: Offense 8, Defense 6

Impact players: QB Jake Bentley, WR Deebo Samuel, RB Rico Dowdle, LB T.J. Brunson, DE D.J. Wonnum

Notable: The Gamecocks lost chunks of their bend-but-don’t-break defense throughout each level, and are desperately thin at safety. They hope to balance their shortcomings on defense with an up-tempo offense where nearly every vital player returns.

USC Schedule

Date Opp. Time

Sept. 1 Coastal Carolina Noon

Sept. 8 Georgia 3:30 p.m.

Sept. 15 Marshall 7:30 p.m.

Sept. 22 at Vanderbilt TBA

Sept. 29 at Kentucky TBA

Oct. 6 Missouri TBA

Oct. 13 Texas A&M TBA

Oct. 27 Tennessee TBA

Nov. 3 at Ole Miss TBA

Nov. 10 at Florida TBA

Nov. 17 Chattanooga TBA

Nov. 24 at Clemson TBA

David Cloninger's SEC prediction

SEC East

1. Georgia

2. South Carolina

3. Florida

4. Kentucky

5. Missouri

6. Vanderbilt

7. Tennessee

SEC West

1. Alabama

2. Auburn

3. Mississippi State

4. Texas A&M

5. LSU

6. Arkansas

7. Ole Miss

SEC Champion: Alabama

Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.