Athlon released six of its pundits' game-by-game predictions for USC. The overall prognosis is good--three picked us to go 10-2, one 11-1, and two 12-0. This is more or less in line with what I'll be predicting after I wrap up my game-by-game predictions; I feel it's most likely for us to either go 11-1 or 12-0 depending on the Georgia game, with another loss certainly being a possibility. Athlon's Braden Gall more or less summed up my thoughts in saying that wins over Georgia and Florida should send us to Atlanta undefeated with a chance to play our way into the national title game. Whether we can beat Alabama, LSU, or TAMU if we get there is a question many have asked, but if we can beat Georgia between the hedges, we can play with the West's best.
The main thing I was mildly surprised to see in this Athlon piece is that while none of the six pundits had us losing to Florida, two of them did have us losing a game in the three-game October road trip to Arkansas, Tennessee, and Missouri. I've been thinking of Florida as the second-biggest threat on our schedule, but more of these folks think the road trip will be. This road trip is a really interesting piece of South Carolina's season. The Gamecocks should be favored in each of these games, and in isolation one would feel confident that Carolina would handle any one of these teams, even on the road. However, the three games come in succession. The question will be whether Carolina can maintain the mental focus needed to play its best football away from Williams-Brice over the three-game trip. Any of these three teams is good enough to upset Carolina if they catch us sleeping. Can we keep from doing that?
Any road game is dangerous, of course. When you consider our history on the road in the SEC, the pundits might be right that this is the most difficult portion of our season outside of the Georgia game. That's even true against the middle tier. Carolina, after all, had its worst loss of 2010 to a middling Kentucky team in Lexington, and we came close to losing to Vandy in Nashville last year. And don't forget that we used to play the role of the average team that was tough to put away on the road during the early Spurrier years. The task of winning on the road becomes even tougher, though, when you don't get to go home after winning one at your opponent's place.
How do teams generally handle such a long trip? While scouring the College Football Datawarehouse, I had trouble finding instances of recent SEC teams playing three-game SEC road trips in succession, which perhaps lends some credence to the idea that while we were fortunate to avoid playing Alabama, LSU, or TAMU during the regular season, we got stuck with a tough scheduling element of our own with this road trip. A half-done "we're sorry about those easy schedules we gave UGA the last two years" from the SEC, if you will. I looked at Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia, LSU, and Tennessee from 2005-2012, and I only found one true instance of a three-game road trip. Georgia and Florida have played three straight games away from home several times during this period, but they mostly involve their neutral-site game in Jacksonville. Here are the examples I found:
--It's not a true three-game road trip, but an average 2011 Florida team lost three consecutive games at LSU, at Auburn, and in Jacksonville against UGA.
--Same deal here, but the 2006 national champion Florida team suffered its only loss of the season at Auburn during a trip to Auburn, Jacksonville, and Nashville to play Vandy.
--2007 Florida lost to LSU and UGA in a trip to Baton Rouge, Lexington, and Jacksonville.
--Georgia won at Knoxville, Nashville, and Jacksonville in 2011.
--In 2012, the Dawgs' loss to us came at the beginning of a trip to Columbia, Lexington, and Jacksonville. It would seem that they probably benefited from getting a week off to lick their wounds after playing us.
--Here's the legit example: Georgia won at Starkville, Knoxville, and Nashville in 2005. All pretty mediocre teams, though.
--In 2006, Georgia lost in Jacksonville and Lexington before a huge upset over Auburn.
--In 2007, Georgia had an ugly loss in Knoxville before winning in Nashville and Jacksonville.
--It involves a trip to Jacksonville in the middle, but UGA actually had a four-game trip in 2008, losing to Florida while beating LSU, Kentucky, and Auburn.
--The Dawgs lost in Nashville and Jacksonville and won in Knoxville in 2009.
It's hard to take much away from what I found because our three-game trip appears to be such a rare phenomenon. I only found the one true example, and it involved Georgia's last SEC Championship team shooting fish in a barrel against three teams that finished with losing records. I did find it striking that many otherwise good Georgia and Florida teams suffered losses during their three-game trips involving Jacksonville. Many of those losses, of course, were at the Cocktail Party, and one team has to lose that game, but there were a few games in there where superior Georgia or Florida teams lost to seemingly inferior teams outside the Cocktail Party, such as Georgia's loss to Tennessee in 2007. Of course, many other factors could be at play in those losses than the fact that the loser was in the midst of a three-game stretch away from home. In any event, I'm looking forward to seeing if we can get out of our trip unscathed, given its unprecedented and potentially treacherous nature.