While the South Carolina Gamecocks finished 6-7 last season, it was a far better debut than most anticipated for first-year head coach Will Muschamp. The Gamecocks certainly took their lumps at times. However, a signature win over Tennessee and an unexpected bowl bid seemed to breathe some life back into a program that many believed was left for dead with the departure of the "old ball coach."
South Carolina returns many of the key pieces that helped exceed expectations in 2016. So, as Muschamp embarks on his second season in Columbia, there is even more optimism in the air for the Gamecocks to continue their trend back to college football relevance. The only thing standing in the way now is a schedule that ranks among the most difficult in the SEC and the nation for 2017.
Here now are South Carolina’s 12 regular season games ranked from easiest to most difficult:
12. Nov. 18 vs. Wofford
It has become commonplace for SEC teams to schedule a late-season matchup against an FCS opponent to help relieve some of the stress of an otherwise brutal schedule. The problem is that Wofford isn’t your typical lower-level cupcake opponent. They return 16 starters from a team that won 10 games in 2016 and feature an option offense that presents a real challenge for opposing defenses. The Gamecocks should win with relative ease at home. However, Wofford is not a team that South Carolina can afford to look past with Clemson looming the following week.
11. Sept. 23 vs. Louisiana Tech
This is another team that South Carolina would be ill advised to overlook. After going 9-5 in 2016, Conference USA Coach of the Year Skip Holtz now has three straight nine-win seasons to his credit to go along with three consecutive bowl victories. The good news for the Gamecocks is that Louisiana Tech lost much of its firepower from an offense that ranked No. 2 in the nation in 2016. That includes Conference USA MVP quarterback Ryan Higgins and his top two targets in receivers Trent Taylor and C-USA Offensive Player of the Year Carlos Henderson. South Carolina should have the edge in Columbia.
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10. Sept. 9 at Missouri
The Gamecocks could have issues on the road with a Missouri offense that took a big leap forward in 2016 and returns 10 starters. On the other hand, the Mizzou defense ranked among the worst in the nation last season and returns just three starters. In a defensive-minded league like the SEC, that does not bode well for Barry Odom’s Tigers.
9. Oct. 28 vs. Vanderbilt
The Commodores return 15 starters from a team that showed promise late in 2016, knocking off the likes of Ole Miss and Tennessee to become bowl eligible for the first time in three years. They also took the Gamecocks to the wire last season in Nashville. But it will be a tall order for Derek Mason to replace All-American linebacker Zach Cunningham on defense. And running back Ralph Webb, Vandy’s top weapon on offense, has never surpassed 100 rushing yards or scored a touchdown against the Gamecocks in three previous matchups. I like South Carolina’s chances in front of the home crowd coming off of a bye week.
8. Oct. 7 vs. Arkansas
The Arkansas offense should be stout with the return of SEC passing leader Austin Allen at quarterback to go along with a formidable backfield. The only real question mark is at receiver with the departure of its top three pass catchers from 2016. The Razorbacks do, however, have plenty of question marks on defense. In addition to making a difficult transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads, Arkansas loses several of its top playmakers on that side of the football. The Gamecocks will probably need to put up plenty of points to get the win, but that looks promising against this defense at home.
7. Sept. 16 vs. Kentucky
While the Gamecocks have been highly competitive against Mark Stoops’ Wildcats, they have lost each of the last three contests to Kentucky. The good news is that South Carolina will have a legitimate opportunity to end that streak in Columbia in 2017. Despite the fact that Kentucky returns most of its starters on both sides of the football, the Wildcats ranked No. 85 in the nation last season in total defense. They were even worse against the run, ranking No. 110 in the country, and question marks linger in that regard. The Wildcats did not have to contend with quarterback Jake Bentley last season, and the Gamecocks’ run game should be much improved in 2017. For those reasons, I like South Carolina's chances at home this time around.
6. Sept. 30 at Texas A&M
The Gamecocks have never beaten the Aggies in their short three-game history. It’s also never an easy task to come away from a hostile environment like Kyle Field with a victory. That being said, this may be South Carolina’s best shot to make it happen. While there’s no shortage of talent in College Station, much of that talent is unproven. Texas A&M is charged with replacing most of its top playmakers on both sides of the football, including No. 1 overall NFL Draft pick Myles Garrett and quarterback Trevor Knight. This should be the game where South Carolina fans find out if Jake Bentley can overcome the jitters that plagued him on the road last season.
5. Sept. 2 vs. NC State (Charlotte, NC)
While the Gamecocks' season opener isn’t technically an away game, it should still provide a significant early-season test for Jake Bentley away from the friendly confines of Williams-Brice Stadium. In fact, this matchup will serve as a nice barometer for the Gamecocks collectively. NC State will be the most experienced team that South Carolina will face in 2017 with 22 seniors returning (11 of them starters), including first-team all-conference DE Bradley Chubb and top target Jaylen Samuels. Standout junior QB Ryan Finley also returns to a Wolfpack team that was a mere missed field goal away from knocking off eventual national champion Clemson last season. There is no question that this will be a difficult matchup for the Gamecocks.
4. Nov. 11 vs. Florida
Florida returns just three starters from a star-studded 2016 defense. The Gator offense is once again questionable at best. And Will Muschamp has the luxury of facing his former team at home in 2017. These are all great reasons to be optimistic about South Carolina’s chances to knock off the back-to-back defending SEC East champs. However, the cupboard is far from bare in Gainesville, and the Gators still have more talent on their roster than the Gamecocks. That, and Florida always seems to find a way to prevail in spite of its shortcomings, particularly when it comes to facing equal or lesser competition.
3. Oct. 14 at Tennessee
South Carolina’s 24-21 victory over Tennessee in Columbia proved to be the highlight of the 2016 season. It was arguably Tennessee’s lowest point, ultimately eliminating the Volunteers from a shot at a division title and an invite to a major bowl game. That is exactly why I am not particularly fond of the Gamecocks’ prospects to upset the Vols again in 2017. Butch Jones will surely have this game circled on the schedule. And while the Volunteers have plenty of unknowns heading into this season, they have no shortage of talent. As long as Tennessee can stay remotely healthy, a repeat of last season will be very difficult for the Gamecocks to come by on the road in Knoxville. Additionally, the Vols will be coming off of a bye, giving them two weeks to rest up and prepare for this matchup.
2. Nov. 4 at Georgia
The Gamecocks have lost three of the last four meetings to the Bulldogs and have not won in Athens since 2011. And it will be a tall order for South Carolina to get over the hump on the road against its rival this fall. Georgia still has a few question marks, most notably along the offensive line and at wide receiver. However, if sophomore quarterback Jacob Eason can take the next step in his maturation, Georgia will be the team to beat in the SEC East in 2017. The Bulldogs feature one of the most potent backfields in the nation with the return of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. And a solid defense from 2016 returns completely intact. The Gamecocks will likely chalk this one up in the loss column.
1. Nov. 25 vs. Clemson
Clemson lost a wealth of talent from its national championship team, which will probably result in a step back in 2017. Unfortunately for the Gamecocks, the Tigers’ decline won’t be nearly steep enough to close a gap that has widened significantly over the last few years. South Carolina is trending in the right direction and should fare much better against the Tigers in 2017 at home. Regardless, Clemson remains one of the most talent-rich teams in the country and the Gamecocks still have plenty of catching up to do before they can once again pose a legitimate threat to their hated in-state rival.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.