Taking a look at five games that could swing the Gamecocks’ season in 2016.
Thursday, Sept. 1
It’s weird when the first game doubles as a swing game. South Carolina’s season will largely rest on how it can handle the bottom three teams in the SEC East. That starts with a Vanderbilt team many are projecting for a big jump. The Commodores already showed their defensive mettle, and are unlikely to slip there. The offense, at this point, is mostly tailback Ralph Webb, but South Carolina likely won’t be able to play like last year’s squad against that team on the road and come out on top.
At Mississippi State
Saturday, Sept. 10
This game is tricky because it all comes down to the question, how large did quarterback Dak Prescott loom for the Bulldogs? Mississippi State loses a few notable defenders and a couple starting offensive linemen, but the mostly-intact supporting cast is without its top runner and centerpiece of an underrated passing game. If MSU slips back to pre-Dak levels, it could be vulnerable. If it slips farther, South Carolina could have a golden chance at an upset.
Saturday, Sept. 24
Another road test against a mid-grade division foe with a lot of instability. The past two losses to the Wildcats have stung USC and were turning points in disappointing seasons. Now Mark Stoops is fighting for his job after three losing campaigns, threatening to get over the hump each of the last two. Kentucky returns a lot from a young offense, loses a good deal from a defense, but both units were part of a team that was probably worse than its 5-7 record. If USC can’t top Kentucky, even on the road, it puts a dent in hopes for a comeback season.
Saturday, Oct. 1
Perhaps this spot should be held for East Carolina, but the usual thorn in everyone’s side is breaking in a new coach and has big quarterback questions. So instead we have a home game against a squad that’s face it’s share of turmoil in the offseason, at least in terms of on-field product. The Aggies could have a lethal defense, possess a fleet of good wide receivers, but they’ll need to find a running game and get something out of ex-Oklahoma passer Trevor Knight, who ranked 76th nationally in passer rating his last year starting. If USC has a chance to beat one of the tougher teams on its schedule, this might be the best one.
Saturday, Nov. 5
Looking back, it’s clear the Gamecocks will have to make their mark early if a turnaround is in the cards, but this late island in the schedule matters. The Tigers are breaking in a new coach and staff, coming off a down year. More importantly, the home game could well decide South Carolina’s bowl fate. With the final four games against Power 5 teams coming against foes with nine or more wins in 2015, the Missouri game could be a late chance for win No. 5, with only Western Carolina standing in the way of a postseason trip, or, if things break right, win No. 6.