Fearless Forecast Sapakoff: 11-1 for South Carolina, 10-2 for Clemson

With Mike Davis running the ball, the Gamecocks will be hard to stop. (Allen Sharpe/Aiken Standard/File)

The crystal ball is so much clearer when objects inside are bigger and better and in the College Football Playoff mix.

Not so long ago - before the popularity of Connor Shaw, Sammy Watkins and Sharknado - predicting won-loss records for South Carolina and Clemson required a tightrope. Or did you forget the fragility of the Sparky Woods, Tommy West, Brad Scott, Tommy Bowden and Lou Holtz years?

These days, throw up 10-2 and it's safer than a Sunday morning stroll.

Summary of my guesses for the last two regular seasons:

2012 - Clemson 10-2 (actual 10-2), South Carolina 10-2 (actual 10-2).

2013 - Clemson 9-3 (actual 10-2), South Carolina 10-2 (actual 10-2).

Time to change it up, slightly.

A fearless 2014 forecast:

Still trying to reconcile the loss of the best quarterback (Shaw) and most talented player (Jadeveon Clowney) in program history with expectations of an SEC East title that eluded the Gamecocks the last three 11-2 seasons?

How it works: South Carolina's massive, experienced offensive line will push people around and allow head coach Steve Spurrier to tinker with tempo. He can slow it down with Heisman Trophy contender Mike Davis running the ball, or pounce with speedy receivers Pharoh Cooper, Damiere Byrd, Shaq Roland and Nick Jones. And the SEC East is still relatively down (Florida and Tennessee will get better).

The defense just has to be a bit better than average.

Sure wins: East Carolina (Sept. 6), at Vanderbilt (Sept. 20), at Kentucky (Oct. 4), Furman (Oct. 18), South Alabama (Nov. 22).

Sure losses: None.

Probable wins: Texas A&M (Aug. 28), Missouri (Sept. 27),

Probable losses: None.

Trap game alert: Tennessee (Nov. 1)

Helmet scratchers: Georgia (Sept. 13), at Auburn (Oct. 25), at Florida (Nov. 15), at Clemson (Nov. 29).

Barometer game: Georgia, as usual.

Record: 11-1. Good enough for an SEC Championship Game appearance and major bowl.

How will new starting quarterback Cole Stoudt react before the hostile crowd at Georgia?

Which running back is the go-to guy at Florida State?

All that talent at wide receiver doesn't necessarily add up to Sammy Watkins.

But if the Tigers can win the old-fashioned way (Danny Ford-style defense) and the new-fangled way (Chad Morris system on offense), another happy Orange Bowl trip is more than likely.

It's just that Clemson might have to start 1-2 and run the table. That would require snapping a five-game losing streak to South Carolina.

Sure wins: S.C. State (Sept. 6), at Boston College (Oct. 18), Syracuse (Oct. 25), at Wake Forest (Nov. 6), Georgia State (Nov. 22).

Sure losses: None.

Probable wins: N.C. State (Oct. 4), at Georgia Tech (Nov. 15).

Probable losses: at Florida State (Sept. 20).

Trap game alert: North Carolina (Sept. 27).

Helmet scratchers: at Georgia (Aug. 30), Louisville (Oct. 11), South Carolina (Nov. 29).

Barometer game: Georgia, just like last year.

Record: 10-2. But which two? The development of Stoudt and/or DeShaun Watson will tell.

New head coach Mike Houston gets the benefit of a reconfigured Southern Conference that replaces Georgia Southern and Appalachian State with Mercer and VMI, the only two teams picked to finish behind The Citadel in the SoCon standings.

After a probable opening loss to Coastal Carolina and a possible 10-touchdown blowout at Florida State, the Bulldogs better win at Charleston Southern, rebuilding season or not.

Record: 5-7.

What's this? The Buccaneers receiving votes in the Preseason FCS coaches poll and planning for a home game against The Citadel?

You know times have changed for the better when second-year head coach Jamey Chadwell has to worry about foes seeking revenge. CSU stunned The Citadel and Coastal Carolina in 2013 on the way to a 10-3 record, the best in school history. Another winning season won't be easy - CSU plays at Vanderbilt and Georgia - but running back Christian Reyes returns after setting the Bucs' record for rushing yards in a season (1,254).

Record: 7-5.

The Bulldogs went 9-4 last season with a 30-20 playoff loss to Furman. After a slow start - Clemson, Coastal Carolina and Furman are among the first four opponents - they will challenge Bethune-Cookman for the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference title. Andrew Carter and Alex Glover are two of the top defensive lineman in the MEAC.

Record: 8-4.

Though Chattanooga is the popular preseason favorite, the Southern Conference is up for grabs. Just like last year when Chattanooga, Furman and Samford tied for first place.

The Paladins' defense, led by linebackers Marcus McMorris and Carl Rider, will keep all games (except South Carolina) close enough to win.

Record: 9-3 and an FCS playoff bid.

The Terriers went 5-6 last year, one of only two losing seasons for head coach Mike Ayers in the last 12 years. The low point of a frustrating 2013 was a 3-0 home loss to Gardner-Webb. Wofford will go with redshirt freshman Brad Butler at quarterback in Ayers' trusty wingbone offense.

Record: 7-4.

Joe Moglia prefers to have football accomplishments listed ahead of his net worth. Coastal Carolina's third-year, multi-millionaire head coach is getting there. The Chanticleers went 12-3 last season. They are back with the two best players in the Big South (linebacker Quinn Backus and quarterback Alex Ross) and legitimate national title hopes.

Record: 11-1 and a premium FCS playoff bid.

The Blue Hose again are picked to finish last in the Big South and the non-conference schedule includes Northern Illinois, N.C. State and Ole Miss. There is hope in a passing attack that features wide receivers Tobi Antigha (54 catches in 2013) and Jeremiah McKie (38 catches).

Record: 2-9.

Follow Gene Sapakoff on Twitter @sapakoff.