Josh Kendall

USC football schedule analysis: Ranking opponents by toughness

South Carolina faces Nick Chubb (27) and the Georgia Bulldogs on Sept. 19 in Athens, Ga.
South Carolina faces Nick Chubb (27) and the Georgia Bulldogs on Sept. 19 in Athens, Ga. USA TODAY Sports

A look at USC’s 2015 football opponents, projected from hardest to easiest:

1. GEORGIA

2014 Record: 10-3 (6-2 SEC)

Date/site: Sept. 19, Athens, Ga.

Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 5 on defense

Recent Result: 38-35 Gamecocks in Williams-Brice Stadium in 2014

The why: Playing the Bulldogs in Williams-Brice has been no sweat for South Carolina of late. Sanford Stadium is a different story. The Bulldogs have scored at least 40 points in each of the past three games against the Gamecocks in Athens and have won two of those games. Compounding the problem is Georgia should be good this year. Led by sophomore running back Nick Chubb, the Bulldogs will be looking to extend that scoring streak.

2. TEXAS A&M

2014 Record: 8-5 (3-5 SEC)

Date/site: Oct. 31, College Station, Texas

Returning Starters: 8 on offense, 7 on defense

Recent Result: Aggies 52-28 in Williams-Brice Stadium in 2014

The why: Turns out the Aggies weren’t the best team in the country in last year, but they looked like it in Week 1, and many Gamecocks still remember that night. Now South Carolina has to play them in remodeled Kyle Field. John Chavis takes over the defense, which will mean an instant upgrade. Quarterback Kyle Allen will try to hold off incoming freshman Kyler Murray in the fall.

3. LSU

2014 Record: 8-5 (4-4 SEC)

Date/site: Oct. 10, Williams-Brice Stadium

Returning Starters: 9 on offense, 6 on defense

Recent Result: Tigers 23-20 in Baton Rouge, La., in 2012

The why: If the Tigers can get their quarterback position solidified (and that’s a pretty big if considering neither Anthony Jennings nor Brandon Harris looked able to do it last year), LSU will be fierce. Running back Leonard Fournette is one of nine starters returning on offense and could be the toughest guy to tackle in the league this year. Kevin Steele and Ed Orgeron take over the defense looking to boost pass rush.

4. CLEMSON

2014 Record: 10-3 (6-2 ACC)

Date/site: Nov. 28, Williams-Brice Stadium

Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 4 on defense

Recent Result: Tigers 35-17 in Clemson in 2014

The why: Sophomore quarterback Deshaun Watson looks like a difference-maker. He’ll be tough for the Gamecocks (and the ACC) to deal with for the next two or three seasons, but it wasn’t Watson who beat South Carolina last year. It was a dominant defensive line, most of which has moved on to the NFL. Offensive coordinator Chad Morris also is gone, but the Tigers have enough offensive talent to keep putting lots of points on the board.

5. MISSOURI

2014 Record: 11-3 (7-1 SEC)

Date/site: Oct. 3, Columbia, Mo.

Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 6 on defense

Recent Result: Tigers 21-20 in Williams-Brice Stadium in 2014

The why: These teams have each traded improbable road victories the past two years, so maybe going halfway across the country will benefit South Carolina this season. The Tigers won the SEC East again last year but have to replace defensive linemen Shane Ray and Markus Golden. Quarterback Maty Mauk completed less than 50 percent of his passes last year and will be working with a new group of wide receivers.

6. TENNESSEE

2014 Record: 7-6 (3-5 SEC)

Date/site: Nov. 7, Knoxville, Tenn.

Returning Starters: 10 on offense, 8 on defense

Recent Result: Volunteers 45-42 in Williams-Brice Stadium in 2014

The why: The bad news? The Volunteers are inexplicably on a two-game winning streak against USC, and quarterback Joshua Dobbs has the potential to be the SEC Player of the Year in 2015 (seriously). Defensive end Derek Barnett gives Tennessee a defensive star as well, and Butch Jones is steadily building the overall talent level back up in Knoxville. The good news? Maybe the Gamecocks are due.

7. NORTH CAROLINA

2014 Record: 6-7 (4-4 ACC)

Date/site: Sept. 3, Charlotte

Returning Starters: 10 on offense, 7 on defense

Recent Result: Gamecocks 27-10 in Charlotte in 2013

The why: You thought South Carolina’s defense struggled last year? The Tar Heels would have loved to have the Gamecocks’ defense. North Carolina was 120th in the nation in total defense and No. 119 in scoring defense. Former Auburn coach Gene Chizik has been hired to turn things around on defense. Coach Larry Fedora returns 10 starters on offense, which is his side of the ball.

8. FLORIDA

2014 Record: 7-5 (4-4 SEC)

Date/site: Nov. 14, Williams-Brice Stadium

Returning Starters: 4 on offense, 6 on defense

Recent Result: Gamecocks 23-20 in Gainesville, Fla., in 2014

The why: New Gators coach Jim McElwain has a lot of work to do. He’s got two unproven quarterbacks in incumbent Treon Harris and incoming freshman Will Grier. Four offensive linemen also are gone, as is the best defensive lineman, Dante Fowler. How the Gators struggled so badly last year remains a mystery. It cost Will Muschamp his job, paving the way for McElwain.

9. CENTRAL FLORIDA

2014 Record: 9-4 (7-1 AAC)

Date/site: Sept. 26, Williams-Brice Stadium

Returning Starters: 5 on offense, 4 on defense

Recent Result: Gamecocks 28-25 in Orlando, Fla., in 2013

The why: The Knights have won the American Athletic Conference two years in a row and gave South Carolina a fight in Orlando two years ago. This team doesn’t have NFL quarterback Blake Bortles at the helm, though. Quarterback Justin Holman returns for a second season of trying to replace Bortles. Four offensive line starters return, and UCF will have to lean on the running game after losing five of its top wide receivers.

10. KENTUCKY

2014 Record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)

Date/site: Sept. 12, Williams-Brice Stadium

Returning Starters: 7 on offense, 7 on defense

Recent Result: Wildcats 45-39 in Lexington, Ky., in 2014

The why: The brief excitement about Mike Stoops’ tenure (which centered mostly around last year’s upset of the Gamecocks) is over. Kentucky faded down the stretch despite having two of the conference’s best defenders. Now Za’Darius Smith and Bud Dupree are gone. Quarterback Patrick Towles is back after a decent season but will be pushed by former Gamecocks commitment Drew Barker.

11. VANDERBILT

2014 Record: 3-9 (0-8 SEC)

Date/site: Oct. 17, Williams-Brice Stadium

Returning Starters: 9 on offense, 9 on defense

Recent Result: Gamecocks 48-34 in Nashville, Tenn., in 2014

The why: The Commodores have to settle on a quarterback after starting four last year. They have hired a new offensive coordinator – Andy Ludwig – to make the decision. On defense, second-year coach Derek Mason also replaced his coordinator. In fact, the former Stanford defensive coordinator is going to take over the defense himself. It probably won’t matter though.

12. THE CITADEL

2014 Record: 5-7 (3-4 SoCon)

Date/site: Nov. 21, Williams-Brice Stadium

Recent Result: Gamecocks 41-20 in Williams-Brice Stadium in 2011

The why: The Bulldogs must replace quarterback Aaron Miller and have four candidates to do it. The offense once again will rotate around the slot back, though, and The Citadel has a good one coming back in Cam Jackson. There’s plenty of depth behind him as well. Defensive stalwarts Rah Muhammad, Carson Smith, Justin Oxendine and Cam Mobley are gone, so there will be some growing pains on that side of the ball.

Josh Kendall

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