Six and six.
The biggest question of June is now the biggest question of July. What should South Carolina football fans expect from their team in the 2016 season? With spring practice a distant memory and fall camp another month away, it’s the query that has come up most often this summer.
Six wins and six losses is the answer. Las Vegas (which at this point means the South Point casino, the first Nevada sports book to release its season win total lines) projects five wins, so expecting six may be a bit optimistic. The Gamecocks finished 3-9 last year and have lost their best offensive player (Pharoh Cooper) and best defensive player (Skai Moore) from that team without an obvious replacement for either.
They’re breaking in a new coaching staff and may be starting a freshman quarterback. They’re underdogs against Vanderbilt for heaven’s sake. There are plenty of reasons to bet the under, in other words.
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So why pick six? For starters, it’s reasonable anywhere in the Southeastern Conference to expect your team to win as many as it loses every year at a minimum. Given the resources SEC schools pour into the programs and particularly into the coaches, fans have a right to expect a certain baseline of success and to be unhappy if it’s not met.
That being said, the hometown team has some significant holes to fill, and its fans need to establish reasonable predictions in order to survive the season with their mental health in tact.
The Vanderbilt game illustrates the key component of this season for Will Muschamp and his new team. There is not a single conference game that South Carolina can chalk up as a sure victory. In the early part of this decade, the Gamecocks had a floor thanks to being able to count on some wins against the conference’s also-rans simply because they were better. A program that won one conference game last year, by nine points at home against Vanderbilt, no longer has a floor.
The flip side of that argument is that the ceiling is high or at least high-ish. For all the talk of the rigor of an SEC schedule, an Eastern Division team can find itself with a schedule that’s not overwhelming, and South Carolina has one of those this year. ESPN’s Football Power Index projects the Gamecocks as having the ninth-toughest schedule in the SEC, 31st-toughest in the nation this fall.
Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Missouri and Georgia at home all are winnable games, and South Carolina will have a puncher’s chance against Tennessee and Florida if things fall their way. The Gamecocks divisional crossover opponents are Mississippi State minus Dak Prescott and a dysfunctional Texas A&M team that has to come play in Williams-Brice (granted, that wasn’t much of a problem for the Aggies the last time).
The non-conference schedule is well timed for a team on the rebound. Three of the four non-conference opponents (East Carolina, Massachusetts and Western Carolina) are in the FCS or ranked 99th or lower in ESPN’s FPI for FBS teams. (The fourth is Clemson in the season finale, a game ESPN’s rankings give South Carolina a 5.9 percent chance to win.)
So, six and six is the sweet spot.
It would mean a bowl trip and a chance to put a seven in one of those columns. That used to be a perfectly acceptable season in Columbia, and it will be again in 2016.