The schedule is brutal by most any description. Getting to a bowl would be considered a success in light of that.
But how does that jive with Muschamp coming into season No. 4, with what he feels is his best squad yet? Would a solid record in the face of that challenge be enough?
We’ll take a look at each game and how things could possibly fall.
Aug. 31: North Carolina (Charlotte)
If this goes sideways for the Gamecocks, fans might have to buckle up for a long season. The Tar Heels have some raw talent and a pair of pretty decent coordinators, including Phil Longo, who put up some numbers on USC last season at Ole Miss. That said, UNC was a rough team last year, and it’s not all that likely the Tar Heels are ready for prime time out of the gate.
The pick: WIN, in the seven- to 14-point range
Sept. 7: vs. Charleston Southern
The question here revolves around three quarterbacks who have been backups at South Carolina. Will there be garbage time Ryan Hilinski for Dakereon Joyner to play, and will former USC walk-on Darius Douglas get on the field for Charleston? It’s an early FCS game, a rarity for an SEC team, but USC cruises.
The pick: WIN, by more than a little
Sept. 14: vs. Alabama
This, this is a doozy. Bama will be Bama, an uber-talented freight train of talent and discipline. Tua is still Tua, that roster is still that roster. If USC hangs within 17 points and pushes a little, that might be as good a sign as any.
The pick: LOSS, by 20 or more
Sept. 21: at Missouri
This is the first of a few tossups that might well define the season. Traveling to the other Columbia isn’t great, but Missouri’s identity is up in the air. Kelly Bryant’s Tigers offense won’t be Drew Lock’s Tigers offense. USC needed a lot of breaks to get past an underrated Tigers team last season, but USC might just take this one, even in hostile territory.
The pick: WIN, less than a touchdown
Sept. 28: vs. Kentucky
It makes sense that Kentucky will fall back, right? Teams that rise like that usually don’t hold, especially when the engine of the offense and a lot of the stellar defense are off to the NFL or life after college. One could even argue, based on some numbers, UK mildly outperformed how well it played last year in terms of wins. But USC hasn’t played well against the Wildcats in a while, despite coming into most of those games in at least some kind of good shape. Until there’s proof on the field, it’s a hard win to pick.
The pick: LOSS, by somewhere in the 10 or less range
Oct 12: at Georgia
Another beast of a team. Last year had some signs of a step-back year for the Dawgs, but they still had one of the most efficient offenses in the land and won 11 games. The offense is in new hands, but with the talent building up there, that doesn’t provide a ton of hope. If USC can get back to making it more of a tussle than last year’s blowout, that might be the best fans can hope for.
The pick: LOSS, by 14-17, though it could be more competitive than the final score
Oct. 19: vs. Florida
The wonder of a Dan Mullen team is the floor will usually be somewhat high, especially on offense. This is also probably South Carolina’s best chance to knock off one of the five preseason top-15 teams on the schedule. UF has had a bit of an air of instability this offseason, but it’s unlikely that keeps the Gators from fielding a hammering offense and defense that goes all-or-nothing. If everything breaks right, it’s the upset option to watch.
The pick: LOSS, by three to seven points
Oct. 26: at Tennessee
This is another tricky one. Folks think Tennessee will be better, as it returns a slew of veteran starters (who might not be that good) and talented youngsters (who are short on experience). The Vols’ seven losses last year were six blowouts and one three-point slugfest in Columbia. For now, assume Muschamp’s program stays a bit ahead of Jeremy Pruitt’s, but it might not be a comfortable game.
The pick: WIN, by seven or less, probably four
Nov. 2: vs. Vanderbilt
South Carolina has ruled this rivalry. The Gamecocks have handled all manner of upstart Commodores teams, including handing a sneaky-good 2018 offense its worst day in Nashville. There’s a chance Derek Mason works some magic, builds the story of the year, but assume USC can keep that streak going.
The pick: WIN, in the seven- to 14-point range
Nov. 9: vs. Appalachian State
This seemed like a bold move when it was scheduled. And after the Mountaineers rolled to 11 wins last year with a young, impressive QB, it just seems like a nightmare of a matchup. The upside is low for the Gamecocks, outside survival, and the downside is this team could be downright mean. USC should win, but it’s not a confident should.
The pick: WIN, not comfortably, at all
Nov. 16: at Texas A&M
This would be South Carolina’s brother in “Oh, God look at that schedule.” Texas A&M has a couple more gimme games, but the top of their slate is possibly a touch tougher (plus the Aggies have expectations). If Jimbo Fisher can get out of Kellen Mond what Mond is capable of, that could be a tough offense to slow. If the A&M defense can take a step forward from being pretty solid and the run game doesn’t miss Trayveon Williams too much, this projects as a tough SEC season capper.
The pick: LOSS, in the two-score range
Nov. 30: vs. Clemson
Being in Columbia helps, but going against the talent Clemson has assembled everywhere does not. Those receivers are bonkers, Trevor Lawrence is a future top pick, the D-line still has stars and it’s hard to pinpoint a weakness. The last three meetings have been (1) a large blowout; (2) a sluggish game that was only 24 points (and mostly over at halftime); and (3) last year’s weird shootout. If USC can be competitive and have it within two scores the whole way, that’s an accomplishment. Sorry, guys.
The pick: LOSS
Projected record: 6-6
Life is hard in the SEC — that’s a reality — especially when the non-division opponents include Clemson, Alabama, Appalachian State and a wildcard of a UNC team. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from a season like this is the “how” more than the final numbers.
Folks will howl at a .500 record, but there’s different kinds of going 6-6. What it looks like, we’ll have to wait and see.