South Carolina comes into the 2016 season off an ugly showing last year. The Gamecocks finished 3-9 with losses in seven of their last eight games (including a loss to The Citadel at home). But the team did at least show some signs of progress down the stretch after Steve Spurrier stepped down midseason.
Now, there’s a fresh voice in Columbia as former Florida coach Will Muschamp takes over a team that has a defense with seven starters returning, but will be without All-SEC-caliber linebacker Skai Moore, who is out for the season with a neck injury. The good news for the Gamecocks is that Muschamp has a pretty good track record when it comes to turning around defenses. Muschamp also will be looking to take advantage of a reasonable schedule to prove himself again as a head coach.
Here is a look at South Carolina’s 12 regular season games, ranked from easiest to toughest:
12. Nov. 19 vs. Western Carolina
The Catamounts from Cullowhee, N.C., are still in the process of building a football program. Last season, they took on two SEC teams, losing 55-10 at Tennessee and 41-17 at Texas A&M. Still, Western Carolina finished with a 7-4 record. Unfortunately, the Catamounts still don’t appear to have the roster to hang around with an SEC team. Then again, neither did The Citadel.
11. Oct. 22 vs. UMass
UMass should provide a bit more of a challenge for the Gamecocks, centered between Georgia and Tennessee on the schedule. The Minutemen nearly beat Vanderbilt in Nashville two years ago and will play three teams from the SEC this season. However, South Carolina will still have the luxury of a bye week to rest up before this game. It shouldn’t be too difficult.
10. Sept. 17 vs. East Carolina
Two years in a row, East Carolina has beaten Virginia Tech. In the past three years, ECU also has beaten NC State and North Carolina (twice). The Pirates are no stranger to competition. This could be a dangerous matchup for the Gamecocks, especially early in the season. At least it will take place in Columbia.
9. Sept. 24 at Kentucky
As the Gamecocks get into the meat of their SEC schedule, they will have to get past Kentucky, a team that has beaten them the past two years. Playing in Lexington will not be an easy chore, but with an expectedly better defense, South Carolina should still be favored. Kentucky brings back 13 starters from a 5-7 team and will be desperately seeking bowl eligibility.
8. Nov. 5 vs. Missouri
South Carolina hasn’t beaten Missouri since 2013. The Tigers won comfortably, 24-10, last year in Columbia. Missouri’s big problem last season as was an offense that struggled, including a stretch in which the unit didn’t produce a touchdown over a three-game span. Eight starters return on new head coach Barry Odom’s defense, so that unit looks to be stout once again. The Gamecocks should have an advantage on offense.
7. Sept. 1 (Thursday) at Vanderbilt
Opening the season on the road is never easy, but this one could be particularly difficult for Muschamp and company. Vanderbilt brings back 16 starters and has gotten progressively better under Derek Mason. The Commodores have plenty to be excited about. Yet, this game takes place in week one. There is usually a surprise factor involved in week one games, so who knows what will happen?
6. Sept. 10 at Mississippi State
As Mississippi State moves on from the Dak Prescott era, it will have a substantial void to fill. But the Bulldogs have plenty of offensive playmakers coming back and the quarterback situation appears to be fairly stable. This game could be a high-scoring affair in Starkville. Mississippi State hasn’t beaten South Carolina since 1999 when Jackie Sherrill and Lou Holtz were roaming the sidelines.
5. Oct. 1 vs. Texas A&M
At least the Gamecocks didn’t draw Alabama or LSU out of the West. Mississippi State should be beatable, and Texas A&M is currently surrounded by controversy on the recruiting trail. Also, one has to wonder what kind of relationship exists between the players and coaches after the Aggies lost two quarterbacks in the offseason. With that said, Kevin Sumlin’s offense will probably still be potent in 2016. This is a difficult matchup for a South Carolina defense trying to take the next step.
4. Nov. 12 at Florida
It’s no secret that Florida wasn’t a great team by the end of last season. After Will Grier was suspended, the Gators’ offense was basically nonexistent, yet again. Still, Florida did enough to hang on and win the SEC East. The Gators beat South Carolina 24-14 in what was a pretty competitive game in Columbia. This time, the Gamecocks will have to travel to The Swamp for a tough contest. Spurrier should be in attendance.
3. Oct. 8 vs. Georgia
Over the past few seasons, South Carolina and Georgia have had some epic battles. However, last season was an exception. The Gamecocks’ decline began with a 52-20 beating at the hands of Georgia. The ‘Dawgs look to have an elite roster, but there will be some question marks in Kirby Smart’s first season. Typically, the home team fares well in this series. That’s good news for South Carolina.
2. Oct. 29 vs. Tennessee
Tennessee appears to be loaded headed into the fall. Expectations have skyrocketed for the Volunteers. It’s understandable when considering the Vols lost four games last season by a combined 17 points, then blasted Northwestern 45-6 in the Outback Bowl. South Carolina gave Tennessee all it wanted in November, only to fall 27-24 after a late-game fumble. Games between these teams are usually decided by a narrow margin.
1. Nov. 26 at Clemson
Rounding out the regular season, South Carolina will have its most difficult game on the road at Clemson. The Gamecocks put up a fight last year during rivalry week, but eventually lost 37-32. Clemson returns an abundance of talent on both offense and defense, including quarterback Deshaun Watson. South Carolina will have its work cut out for it against the team that played for the national championship last season.