The road ahead for USC football

At first blush, the schedule shapes up as a favorable one. Just four true road games, a new cross-divisional opponent coming off its worst season in five years, and three consecutive contests at Williams-Brice Stadium to close the season. Indeed, South Carolina’s football slate sets up very well for a Gamecocks team trying to rebound — if USC doesn’t stumble out of the gate.

It’s been a long time since two games to open the season have loomed as large as the Gamecocks’ first pair of contests to begin the 2015 campaign. North Carolina and Kentucky are beatable opponents coming off mediocre seasons, and have much further to go than even a USC squad looking for a new quarterback and defensive line. But the Gamecocks seem likely to once again dance on that razor’s edge, and recent history indicates that it doesn’t take much to knock them off.

So before the opportunity presented by three straight home games to close the season, before the question mark that is LSU comes to Columbia, before the gauntlet that is back-to-back road games at Texas A&M and Tennessee — it all starts with North Carolina and Kentucky. Win those, and there’s a real chance to improve upon that 7-6 mark of a year ago. Lose them, and it gets tough to see where victories will come from down the road.

At the very least, it will be interesting. The Gamecocks and their opponents on this schedule, both of which inspire their share of head-scratching, seem made for one another. And as the final weeks count down before kickoff, here’s a glance at the road ahead:

WHO: vs. North Carolina

WHEN: Sept. 3, 6 p.m. in Charlotte

SERIES: North Carolina leads 18-34-4

LAST MEETING: USC 27, North Carolina 10 in Columbia (Aug. 29, 2013)

LAS VEGAS LINE: USC by 3

THE SKINNY: Marquise Williams missed spring practice after hip surgery, but the UNC quarterback remains a formidable opening-night foe who passed for 3,000 yards last season. The Heels’ rotten defense was the primary reason for their 6-7 record in 2014, and former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik has been brought in to try and correct it. Larry Fedora’s team was a lot like USC last season, and whichever squad makes the most improvement on defense seems likely to end up on top.

WHO: vs. Kentucky

WHEN: Sept. 12, 7:30 p.m.

SERIES: USC leads 17-8-1

LAST MEETING: Kentucky 45, USC 38 in Lexington, Ky. (Oct. 4, 2014)

LAS VEGAS LINE: None yet posted

THE SKINNY: The Wildcats rallied to beat USC last season, and then didn’t win another SEC game. They finished 5-7, and will bring a seven-game losing skid into Williams-Brice. Mark Stoops’ defense lost some key contributors after last season, and the quarterback job remains wide open despite Patrick Towles returning behind center.

WHO: at Georgia

WHEN: Sept. 19, 6 p.m.

SERIES: Georgia leads 47-18-2

LAST MEETING: USC 38, Georgia 35 in Columbia (Sept. 13, 2014)

LAS VEGAS LINE: Georgia by 11

THE SKINNY: Georgia doesn’t yet have a frontrunner to replace Hutson Mason at quarterback, but it shouldn’t matter. The Bulldogs are dangerous with Nick Chubb and their stable of running backs, and expect new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer to feel right at home with that kind of talent and Georgia’s NFL-style scheme. Jeremy Pruitt’s defense made leaps forward last season, and the Bulldogs look every bit the clear favorite in the SEC East.

WHO: vs. Central Florida

WHEN: Sept. 26, TBA

SERIES: USC leads 4-0

LAST MEETING: USC 28, Central Florida 25 in Orlando, Fla. (Sept. 28, 2013)

LAS VEGAS LINE: None yet posted

THE SKINNY: Blake Bortles may be long gone, but the Knights still claimed a share of the American Athletic Conference title last season, and still bring a dangerous team to Columbia. Justin Holman is a veteran quarterback, William Stanback is an effective runner when healthy, and head coach George O’Leary has brought in NFL vet Chuck Bresnahan to lead his defense.

WHO: at Missouri

WHEN: Oct. 3, TBA

SERIES: Missouri leads 3-2

LAST MEETING: Missouri 21, USC 20 in Columbia (Sept. 27, 2014)

LAS VEGAS LINE: Missouri by 11

THE SKINNY: Once again, Missouri lost enough personnel on paper to leave you convinced their run atop the SEC East is done. Once again, Gary Pinkel and his Tigers seem ready to outsmart everyone else. This group plugs lineup holes as well as any team in the conference, to the point where Pinkel believes his defensive line will be just fine even without the departed Shane Ray and Markus Golden.

WHO: vs. LSU

WHEN: Oct. 10, TBA

SERIES: LSU leads 17-2-1

LAST MEETING: LSU 23, USC 21 in Baton Rouge, La. (Oct. 13, 2012)

LAS VEGAS LINE: LSU by eight

THE SKINNY: It’s always an adventure when LSU comes to town, never more so than this year, with the Tigers coming off an 8-5 campaign that left them out of the final rankings for the first time in five seasons. Head coach Les Miles expects his quarterback duo of Anthony Jenkins and Brandon Harris to be better, Kevin Steele and Ed Orgeron take over a loaded defense, and taiback Leonard Fournette is capable of anything. By the time he gets to Columbia, Miles could be chewing grass out of exasperation or glee. The fun will be finding out which.

WHO: vs. Vanderbilt

WHEN: Oct. 17, TBA

SERIES: USC leads 20-4

LAST MEETING: USC 48, Vanderbilt 34 in Nashville, Tenn. (Sept. 20, 2014)

LAS VEGAS LINE: None yet posted

THE SKINNY: Derek Mason started from scratch when he took over for James Franklin, and the benefit of that should begin to arrive this season, when Vanderbilt returns 18 starters. The Commodores had 31 true or redshirt freshmen forced into action last season, and it showed in a winless SEC slate. But all that experience will help, as will standout tailback Ralph Webb, even though the quarterback situation is a mess. Progress will be measured not against USC, but against Middle Tennessee and Austin Peay.

WHO: at Texas A&M

WHEN: Oct. 31, TBA

SERIES: Texas A&M leads 1-0

LAST MEETING: Texas A&M 52, USC 28 in Columbia (Aug. 28, 2014)

LAS VEGAS LINE: Texas A&M by 10

THE SKINNY: It sure didn’t look like it last August when Texas A&M rolled up yards on USC at will, but it would be the Aggies who finished with the worst defense in the SEC. That was the reason behind A&M’s 8-5 record, and luring defensive whiz John Chavis from LSU. Quarterback Kyle Allen has loads of weapons on offense, and the Aggies have a star defensive end in Myles Garrett.

WHO: at Tennessee

WHEN: Nov. 7, TBA

SERIES: Tennessee leads 24-7-2

LAST MEETING: Tennessee 45, USC 42 (OT) in Columbia (Nov. 1, 2014)

LAS VEGAS LINE: None yet posted

THE SKINNY: The darlings of the preseason, the Vols return 18 starters from a squad that closed last season 4-1 and won their first bowl game since 2008. Quarterback Josh Dobbs is a rising star, the defense last year recorded its most sacks since 2000, and nearly half the players who took the field last season for head coach Butch Jones were doing so for the first time.

WHO: vs. Florida

WHEN: Nov. 14, TBA

SERIES: Florida leads 24-8-3

LAST MEETING: USC 23, Florida 20 (OT) in Gainesville, Fla. (Nov. 15, 2014)

LAS VEGAS LINE: USC by 2.5

THE SKINNY: In a perfect world he’s the second coming of the Ball Coach, bringing to Gainesville an offense which rolled up 498 yards per game at Colorado State. But new coach Jim McElwain doesn’t have quite the personnel he did in Fort Collins, so adjustments will be order. There’s no clear front-runner at quarterback, but corner Vernon Hargreaves and linebacker Antonio Morrison are stars on a defense which will likely carry this team in the short term.

WHO: vs. The Citadel

WHEN: Nov. 21, TBA

SERIES: USC leads 40-7-3

LAST MEETING: USC 41, The Citadel 20 in Columbia (Nov. 19, 2011)

LAS VEGAS LINE: None yet posted

THE SKINNY: This isn’t 1990, and a Citadel team bound for the playoffs against a bad Gamecocks squad coached by Sparky Woods. But the Bulldogs could be better under second-year coach Mike Houston, given that they return 16 starters from a team that won five of its last nine games en route to a 5-7 record. The departed Aaron Miller leaves a hole at quarterback, but there are able candidates on a team that can score points.

WHO: vs. Clemson

WHEN: Nov. 28, TBA

SERIES: Clemson leads 66-42-4

LAST MEETING: Clemson 35, USC 17 in Clemson (Nov. 29, 2014)

LAS VEGAS LINE: Clemson by 3

THE SKINNY: Remember that five-game winning streak USC once held over its in-state rival? Well, Clemson could be on the brink of starting a similar run. The Tigers, the preseason media pick to win the ACC, are simply loaded on offense around star quarterback Deshaun Watson, who now has two good knees. If Clemson can avoid a serious drop-off on defense after losing so many stars off the nation’s top-ranked unit, beating USC may just be the beginning.