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South Carolina 2016 opponent preview: Vanderbilt might set the tone for the entire season

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Over the next few days, we're previewing all twelve of South Carolina's 2016 opponents. Let's start from the top as the Gamecocks launch with an SEC East opponent!

Vanderbilt v Florida Photo by Rob Foldy/Getty Images

When James Franklin bolted Vanderbilt for Penn State after leading the Commodores to consecutive nine-win seasons in 2012 and 2013 and their first back-to-back winning seasons since 1974-75(!), the question was if Derek Mason would carry on the momentum. Well, not quite yet. Mason's been trending more in the direction of Franklin's predecessors in his first two years. (Fun fact: Clemson O-line coach Robbie Caldwell coached Vandy for one season and went 2-10!)

What will this year hold? Well, there were a few question marks entering the preseason, starting with who will pass the ball. QB Johnny McCrary transferred to Mercer in the offseason, leaving things up in the air in that department and setting off a battle between Kyle Shurmur (son of Minnesota Vikings TE coach Pat Shurmur) and Wade Freebeck - with the job eventually going to Shurmur. Having Ralph Webb back to run the ball should help matters as the redshirt junior put up the second-most single season rushing yards in school history with 1,152. On defense, apart from second-leading tackler Darreon Herring, Vandy doesn't lose a ton, and will benefit from having leading LB Zach Cunningham, corner Torren McGaster and Tre Herndon, and safety Oren Burks back.

In any event, this game is very important for South Carolina. We ran a poll a few weeks back on Twitter asking what the must-win SEC game was for the team, and over half of you that voted said Vandy.

Truth is, you don't want to enter Kentucky on September 24 already 0-1 in the East, especially with Georgia coming up in two weeks. That's not to say the Gamecocks will challenge for the East crown immediately, but if they do, one loss could be the difference: The year 2015 ended five straight seasons in which the SEC East champion either won the division by a single game or via a tiebreak rule (in 2012, Georgia and Florida were co-champions; however, Georgia won the head-to-head matchup and, as a result, the tiebreaker).

Last year: 4-8 (2-6 SEC)

Best returning player: Ralph Webb

Texas A&M v Vanderbilt Photo by Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

Vandy didn't set the world on fire last season in the passing department (averaging just over 171 yards through the air), but were able to take comfort in the fact that they had a strong running back in Webb. I mentioned his numbers briefly earlier, but if the offense is to take a step forward from 2015, Webb will need to take a step forward himself. Webb, while not one of the elite backs in the conference (certainly not in relation to the Fournettes and Chubbs of the world), should be able to crank it up in an attempt to get his team back to where they were during the Franklin era.

Prognosis: While they're set at RB and largely on defense, the Dores' QB play could be the difference between a successful season and another losing one. They have a tough stretch of games to wrap the season (at Auburn and Mizzou, home against Ole Miss and Tennessee). I'm tempted to lean toward a three/four-ish win season, but I think a lot of those wins will come before the bye, and one - against FCS Tennessee State - can be penciled in for sure.