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Ranking the Toughest Games on South Carolina's College Football Schedule in 2015

Pharoh Cooper

Pharoh Cooper

In my early 1980s youth, I would always look forward to the annual football tab that The State and Columbia Record put out.

It wasn't because I was finally ready to hear about Sloan's Bears but rather because Bob Gillespie and whoever was covering Clemson that year would come out with preseason, game-by-game picks for the Tigers as well as the South Carolina Gamecocks.

Every football fan goes down their favorite team's schedule when it comes out and does a quick pick of the games; "North Carolina's a W. They moved up the Kentucky game this year? Georgia's probably an L," etc.

Now, I could read such an endeavor, usually with humorous comments attached ("there's always the chance Danny Ford's team gets locked in the locker room"), from the experts who would let me know what to look for that season.

We're not doing that in this article. First, because that's not what Athlon has instructed me to do. They've instructed me to rank the games on the Gamecocks' schedule in order of difficulty.

And second, because in 1982 The State/Columbia Record's football tab just nailed Clemson's schedule at the beginning of the year, picking the Tigers to go 10-1 when they finished 9-1-1. The only game picked incorrectly was a 17-17 tie to Boston College, quarterbacked by a then-unknown Doug Flutie — hardly an inexcusable blight on the record.

Gillespie, however, picked the Gamecocks to go 7-4 and make a bowl game. Instead, they went 4-7 and lost to Furman.

So, of course, in 1983 The State/Columbia Record had Gillespie revive his preseason picks for South Carolina while a new writer was found to pick the Clemson games. Oh, and the Record ceased publication five years later.

Considering the fact I wish to stay employed and Athlon wishes to stay in business, here's the schedule South Carolina will navigate in 2015, ranked in order of difficulty.

12. Nov. 21 vs. The Citadel

South Carolina's 38-35 loss to The Citadel in 1990 probably kept the Gamecocks out of a bowl game. If it happens this year, expect the same. The Bulldogs lost their leading rusher and quarterback from last year and return only two starters on defense. Besides, the days of Carolina losing to Division I-AA/FCS teams went out with Sparky Woods and Richard Bell.

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11. Oct. 17 vs. Vanderbilt

In 2007 and ‘08, Vandy would take the wind out of South Carolina's sails by upsetting the Gamecocks and sent the message they weren't ready to be considered elite. Now the Commodores are sending the message they have never won an SEC championship and don't intend to any time soon. Ralph Webb rushed for more than 900 yards as a freshman last year, but so what?

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10. Sept. 26 vs. UCF

The Golden Knights have had a nice 21-5 run during the past two seasons. In fact their only loss of 2013 came to the Gamecocks. This year UCF has to replace 13 starters from last season, its entire secondary, and even its athletic director. Quarterback Justin Holman throws too many picks and the Knights did not run the ball particularly well last season.

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9. Sept. 12 vs. Kentucky

With new offensive coordinator Shannon Dawson the Wildcats will play a new, fast-break offense designed to keep the offense on the field for at least 85 plays. They'll also employ a new 3-4 defensive front. Kentucky put up 45 points on South Carolina last year, but are slated to start five sophomores and a freshman on offense and haven't won in Columbia since 1999.

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8. Sept. 3 vs. North Carolina (in Charlotte, N.C.)

If there was a defense that was actually worse than the Gamecocks’ last season, it was North Carolina. The Tar Heels allowed at least 20 points in all of their games, 27 or more in 11, and ranked 101st or worse in all major defensive categories. Still, the Tar Heels went to a bowl game with an offense that returns dual-threat quarterback Marquise Williams and favorite receiver Ryan Switzer. The "Carowinds Bowl" is must win if the Gamecocks wish to have any sort of national prominence this season.

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7. Oct. 3 at Missouri

Now it gets difficult. Athlon has the Tigers 27th in its preseason rankings, the Gamecocks 37th. Four seniors weighing more than 300 pounds return to the Tigers’ offensive line and quarterback Maty Mauk returns for this third year as a starter. But he has no experienced wide receivers to throw to. Three starters are gone from the defensive line. Can Missouri continue to produce quality pass rushers?

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6. Nov. 14 vs. Florida

Let's face it, one of the reasons the Gamecocks have been able to contend in the SEC East in recent years is the demise of Florida and Tennessee, the two teams that ruled the 1990s. Oh, and the fact the Gamecocks have the Gators' former head coach. New Florida boss Jim McElwain has landed some quality linemen in Martez Ivey and CeCe Jefferson, but what will their immediate impact be? What this game may come to is how well the Gators' Vernon Hargreaves III, perhaps the best cornerback in the SEC, handles Pharoh Cooper, in a matchup that figures to be replayed at some point in the NFL.

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5. Nov. 7 at Tennessee

In South Carolina's first season in the SEC, the magic of quarterback Steve Taneyhill upset Tennessee 24-23, effectively ending John Majors' career as the Volunteers’ head coach. Tennessee has never let the Gamecocks forget it, punishing the Gamecocks in the 1990s, and squeaking past them annually the following decade to keep USC under its thumb, and even ruining the Gamecocks' national championship aspirations two years ago on Marquez North's catch after South Carolina had finally passed them in the SEC pecking order. Make no doubt, even more than Clemson, THE VOLS ARE THE MUST-WIN GAME ON CAROLINA'S SCHEDULE AND ALMOST ALWAYS ARE. Butch Jones seems to have the Vols on the right track, but for now the program is still running on recruiting rankings instead of results. A third straight loss to Tennessee will likely insure South Carolina's place behind the Vols in the SEC East pecking order for the foreseeable future, a victory will likely change the hierarchy momentum and could give the Gamecocks a chance to win the division. 

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4. Oct. 31 at Texas A&M

South Carolina was supposed to defend the honor of the SEC last Aug. 28 in the Aggies' conference debut. You know what happened. Now the Gamecocks must travel to College Station. Texas A&M has a new quarterback this season, a new running back, and a completely new set of linebackers, but by Halloween do returning starters from 2014 really matter? It's just so hard to get 52-28 out of one's mind.

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3. Oct. 10 vs. LSU

This is not an unwinnable game for South Carolina. It's at home, the Tigers are coming off a 7-5 season, and they have inconsistency at quarterback (Anthony Jennings? Brandon Harris?). But LSU figures to be one of the best defensive teams in the country behind free safety Jalen Mills and linebacker Kendell Beckwith. Additionally, the Tigers are from the mighty SEC West and the Gamecocks also have only beaten LSU once (1994) since Paul Dietzel came from Baton Rouge to Columbia.

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2. Nov. 28 vs. Clemson

It had appeared South Carolina had finally moved ahead of Clemson in state hierarchy. Five straight victories and being the member of the superior football conference have a way of doing that. But last year's 35-17 Clemson victory may have been a telling sign of the "You know, Steve isn't going to be there by the time you graduate" recruiting line. Good news for Gamecocks fans is the Tigers' top-ranked defense lost NFL draft first-round choices Vic Beasley, Stephone Anthony, along with seven other starters, and quarterback Deshaun Watson is injury prone. Bad news is Mike Williams and Artavis Scott might still both haul in 1,000 yards this year. A victory to knock the Tigers out of College Football Playoff contention would be sweet, but having both teams nationally ranked may be even sweeter.

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1. Sept. 19 vs. Georgia

A South Carolina victory in this series doesn't always insure a great season. Brandon Bennett's touchdown in 1993 to beat the Bulldogs on the last play of the game looked like it was going to kick off a new era of prestige behind the aforementioned Tanneyhill, then a sophomore. Instead it kicked off a 4-7 season and the coach was fired. And last season's 38-35 victory didn't spark a run for a division championship. But more times than not — 1984, 1987, 2000, 2001, 2010-12 — a South Carolina victory against Georgia indicates a special season is on the horizon.

Georgia's the hands-down favorite in the SEC East. Nick Chubb may someday win a Heisman. The entire secondary returns. But there's a whole new defensive line and a new quarterback under center as well. A victory here and reports of the demise of Gamecocks football will be greatly exaggerated. A loss and well…

— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson has been a contributor to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for 15 years. He has covered the Steelers, Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.