If you're anything like me, and I'm reckoning most of you are, then you know that we are rapidly approaching the worst time of the year to be a sports fan. College baseball (for us) has ended. The NBA playoffs will be over at any time in the next week. We're still months away from the Olympics. Unless you really enjoy the X Games or terrible Atlanta Braves baseball, you're out of luck.
I like to think of the July to August stretch of the year as sports purgatory. It's the waiting period we have to endure before we get to experience the joy of what our hearts really desire: football.
For me, there's a point during every summer where my longings for football hit me like a freight train. I have officially reached that point. Football consumes my thoughts. I want to feel the cool, autumn air outside that signals the beginning of the best time of the year. I want to see Kirk and Lee on my TV on Saturday mornings bickering like little old women. I want to hear the soul-stirring strains of 2001: A Space Odyssey as the Gamecocks gather in the tunnel and 80,000 blood-thirsty fans welcome whoever it is we're playing into the three hours of hell known as Williams-Brice Stadium.
I'm getting chills thinking about it.
You know what? Let's just watch it.
75 days, everybody. 75 days.
Having said all of that, it's time to open up the conversation on the 2016 season. As always, I'm filled with both unashamed optimism and the dread of impending doom. That may seem like a contradiction, but if you've watched the Gamecocks long enough, you know this feeling all too well. Yes, I know we aren't even to summer practice yet and there are some guys who aren't even enrolled who could make an impact this season, but honestly, I just don't care. I can't wait any longer and I know a lot of you can't wait any longer. The people want football, and I'm nothing if not a man of the people.
To kick us off, we're going to take a look at the Gamecocks' 2016 schedule, game by game. Because I'm a tease, but also a realist, we're going to look at each game in three parts: the best case scenario of said-game, the worst case scenario of said-game and the most likely scenario (which will serve as my official prediction) of said-game. This way, you can live in dream land for a couple sentences, have it all ripped away from you abruptly and then be brought back to reality.
What? We're preparing for the season, guys.
Preseason Schedule Observations:
Let's all pretend for just a second that we aren't dealing with the 2016 Gamecocks football team, but instead the 2012 or 2013 Gamecocks football team. Had we received this year's schedule with either of those teams, I think we, as a fan base, are probably talking about going undefeated in our preseason conversation with no hesitation whatsoever.
This year's slate of games will be one of the more manageable schedules the Gamecocks have played in some time. Unfortunately, we won't be playing it with the 2012 or 2013 teams. Even so, the 2016 version of the Gamecocks should have the opportunity to play in a bowl game this season given the relative ease of the schedule compared to previous years.
That's not to say it won't be a challenge. This is still the SEC, after all. Perhaps the biggest obstacle is how South Carolina will handle the first month of the season. The Gamecocks' first three SEC games come on the road at Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Kentucky. Granted, that isn't LSU, Georgia and Alabama, but those are still early conference road games that a young and untested South Carolina team will have to make the most of if they want to reach a bowl game.
September 1st at Vanderbilt:
Best Case: The Gamecocks look faster, angrier, better coached and out to prove that 2015 was a fluke. The offense is ahead of schedule under Kurt Roper and moves the ball consistently against a good Commodore defense. Will Muschamp and Travaris Robinson's defensive scheme change has an immediate effect and South Carolina stymies Vandy all night in route to the perfect introduction to the Muschamp era. USC, 35-13.
Worst Case: Lingering questions about the offense prove to be totally justified as the Gamecocks can't get anything going and seem to lack any playmakers on that side of the ball. The Commodore defense is as stout as advertised and their offense picks apart the weak South Carolina secondary and handles the Gamecocks front line. Vandy hands Will Muschamp an opening game loss. Vandy, 28-14.
Most Likely Case: South Carolina should (hopefully) look like a better-coached team when we open the 2016 season in Nashville, albeit, one coping with a lot of inexperience. I think this game remains close throughout as neither offense is very likely to light up the scoreboard. However, despite our relative lack of experience, we are the more talented team and it will show in the final quarter, as newly-inserted quarterback Brandon McIlwain and our defense make a couple of big plays late to pull out the win. USC, 23-17. (1-0)
September 10th at Mississippi State:
Best Case: A Gamecock team that found its footing a week ago against Vanderbilt shows growing confidence in themselves as they soundly handle a Bulldog team gutted of its 2015 playmakers. Brandon McIlwain solidifies himself at quarterback and looks cool, calm and in-control in his first full-game action. USC, 31-17.
Worst Case: South Carolina doesn't have enough in the tank to win back-to-back SEC road games to start the year and fall short in Starkville. The cowbell crowd noise seems to get to the young team and Brandon McIlwain struggles in his first start, opening up the quarterback carousel for the next few weeks. MSU, 27-17.
Most Likely Case: This should absolutely be a winnable game, and in many ways, it's one of our most important games of the season. Mississippi State is coming off of one of the best runs in school history the last couple of years, but lost Dak Prescott and several other playmakers from those teams. I fully expect this to be a battle all the way between two teams who are both searching for identities. It's toss up games like this one which will determine if South Carolina goes bowling this year. The Gamecocks haven't lost to the Bulldogs since 1999. I think that trend continues and South Carolina notches a big win over Mississippi State in Starkville. USC, 27-23. (2-0)
September 17th vs. East Carolina:
Best Case: In the first home game of the year, the Gamecocks come out with their hair on fire and immediately quell any thoughts of this being a trap game. East Carolina looks overmatched on both sides of the ball and South Carolina rolls to a comfortable win. USC, 41-14.
Worst Case: The Gamecocks play like they expect the Pirates to roll over and they don't. Instead, they punch South Carolina in the mouth and jump out to a big early lead. Despite playing better in the second half, the hole is too deep to climb out of and East Carolina shocks the Gamecocks in their home opener. ECU, 34-28.
Most Likely Case: This is going to be your classic, "Why do we always play bad against teams like this" game. It happens every year. The Pirates will hang around for a couple of quarters and possibly have a small lead at halftime. People will be nervous and frustrated. The Gamecocks will then come out of the second half looking like a different team and impose their will for the remainder of the game as they pull away for a decent-looking win. You know this story. USC, 34-21. (3-0)
September 24th at Kentucky:
Best Case: South Carolina comes into Lexington pissed off that they've lost two straight to the Wildcats and create some early momentum for themselves by capitalizing on a couple Kentucky turnovers. The Wildcats try to mount a comeback but the Gamecocks defense is having none of it and clamp down in the fourth quarter for a big morale-boosting win. USC, 30-21.
Worst Case: Kentucky continues to be the bane of Carolina's existence by handling the Gamecocks for all four quarters and cruising to a deflating, convincing win. UK, 35-20.
Most Likely: The Gamecocks just haven't played very well in recent trips to Lexington and the lack of experience on this year's roster means going in there and beating them is going to be tough. However, the Wildcats are breaking in a new QB and will likely try to run the ball a ton, which should play into the strength of our defense this year. It's my personal belief that we should always expect to beat Kentucky no matter what, because we're South Carolina and they're Kentucky and that's just the way it is. I'm not changing that belief because we had a couple bad games against them. USC, 27-20. (4-0)
October 1st vs. Texas A&M:
Best Case: Riding the momentum of the home crowd, the Gamecocks come out and play up to the dysfunctional Aggies' level. Brandon McIlwain is visibly comfortable in the South Carolina offense and is clicking on all cylinders. The front seven disrupts their passing game and the Gamecocks beat A&M for the first time since they joined the SEC. USC, 38-31.
Worst Case: The Aggies talent overwhelms the Gamecocks, especially in the secondary where their 5-star receivers have a field day on our corners and safeties. TAMU, 49-24.
Most Likely Case: They have a lot more talent than us, but they have been such a dumpster fire in the past six months that there is no way to know this far out how good or bad they might be at the time we play them. They've been woefully inconsistent, but their talent outweighs ours. It's really that simple. I could see South Carolina maybe pulling it out if things are rolling really well for us at this point, but if I had to guess, I'm thinking this one is an L. TAMU, 35-28. (4-1)
October 8th vs. Georgia:
Best Case: The Bulldogs put a beat down on the Gamecocks in 2015 and South Carolina is determined to not let that happen again. The home crowd is rocking, the defense does a good job containing Nick Chubb and South Carolina finds a few big plays along the way to pull off a big upset over the Will Muschamp's alma mater. USC, 24-17.
Worst Case: Basically just 2015 all over again and in Williams-Brice. The young playmakers that South Carolina will have to rely on look shell-shocked against the more talented Bulldogs. The Gamecock defense has no answer for Chubb and the UGA rushing attack, and South Carolina gets blown out. UGA, 52-20 (because I can't think of anything worse than 2015).
Most Likely Case: Here's the deal: the reason the Gamecocks got blasted last year was a combination of 1) Perry Orth's first road start 2) A defense that allowed Greyson Lambert to look like Joe Montana. 3) Obvious talent gap between the two teams. And while I think problems one and two will likely be fixed, I just don't see how the Gamecocks overcome problem number three just one year removed from the butt-whipping in 2015. This game is traditionally close, so I expect a much better effort from South Carolina this time around under new management and in front of the home crowd, but Georgia's talent is going to be too much to overcome this year. UGA, 34-24. (4-2)
October 22nd vs. UMass:
Best Case: It's never close as the Gamecocks come out and take care of the Minutemen without much struggle. In the process, South Carolina gets a chance to experiment offensively and work some kinks out before the meat of the SEC schedule. USC, 45-14.
Worst Case: The Gamecocks come out flat like they typically do against teams like UMass and find themselves in a dogfight throughout. South Carolina eventually squeaks out a win, but not before taking years off the lives of their fan base. USC, 24-21.
Most Likely Case: I doubt we come out and just destroy them by 50, but I also don't think they're going to beat us at home. Probably just an average non-power five win. USC, 33-17. (5-2)
October 29 vs. Tennessee:
Best Case: When I picture the best case scenario for this game, it's pretty much the entire second half of last year's game, minus Jerrell Adams' gut-wrenching fumble (still hurts) on the final drive; which is instead replaced with a game-winning BMac touchdown run on a fourth-and-goal scramble. USC, 28-27.
Worst Case: The Volunteers probably have the most overall talent in the SEC East this year and it shows against an overwhelmed South Carolina squad. UT, 41-23.
Most Likely Case: Because the game is at home, I think it's pretty likely that the Gamecocks will hang around a keep it close for most of the game, but this might be the second-toughest game on the schedule this year behind the Clemson game. It would be asking a lot for South Carolina to win this one. UT, 38-27. (5-3)
November 5th vs. Missouri:
Best Case: The Gamecocks find the Tigers in a state of disarray and they take advantage. Mizzou, with question marks all over the field, can't handle South Carolina on either side of the ball and the Gamecocks cement their bowl eligibility with a convincing win. USC, 31-14.
Worst Case: Think 2015 all over again. It is apparent early on that neither team is any good and it shows throughout a sluggish and ugly game. The Gamecocks can't hold onto the ball and despite having more talent, find a way to lose to a hapless Mizzou squad. Mizzou, 20-17.
Most Likely Case: As bad as we were last year, I will always believe that if we had started Perry Orth against the Tigers in 2015, we would have won. After we lost to them last year, they did not score an offensive touchdown for a month. A MONTH! As bad as they were last year, by all accounts, they might be worse in 2016. Considering the game is in Williams-Brice, this is one South Carolina absolutely should win and must win in order to reach the 6-win mark. USC, 30-17. (6-3)
November 12th at Florida:
Best Case: In Will Muschamp hater's worst nightmare, he returns to the Swamp and, in his first opportunity, shocks his former team as the head coach of the Gamecocks, a la Spurrier, 2005. We as a fan base get to openly mock every Florida fan who talked crap to South Carolina about hiring him. To rub it in even more, Brandon McIlwain already looks a jillion times better than any quarterback Muschamp ever had in Gainesville. USC, 30-22 (because I think karma has a sense of humor.)
Worst Case: Florida is just too much to handle for a young South Carolina team on the road. Despite coming out very inspired, they also come out sloppy and are never really in the game with the Gators. The Will Muschamp haters have gasoline poured on their fire and we have to deal with that for at least another year. UF, 40-24.
Most Likely Case: I think this is a more winnable game than some make it out to be. South Carolina typically gives the Gators their best shot and Florida is dealing with some turnover on offense after losing quarterbacks Will Grier and Treon Harris. I would not be at all surprised if South Carolina came out with a ton of fire, played for their head coach and upset the Gators in the Swamp come November. That being said, I think you still have to give Florida the edge knowing what we do right now. As of today, I expect a tough game but a close loss. Ask me again in November and that's subject to change. UF, 28-23. (6-4)
November 19th vs. Western Carolina:
Best Case: We exorcise all of our Citadel and FCS demons on poor Western Carolina. It's never close, no one gets hurt before the Clemson game and none of us have to sweat or worry. USC, 52-3.
Worst Case: Well, we've already proven we are, in fact, capable of losing these kinds of games. Even so, we can all agree that 2015 was a season from Hell, so I can't see us losing a game like this again one year later, I just can't. Worst case would be 1) the game is way too close for way too long 2) someone important goes down 3) the broadcasters show lots of 2015 Citadel highlight tapes during the broadcast. Actually, now that I think about it, they're probably going to do the third thing regardless. Sigh. USC, 27-17.
Most Likely Case: If I was a betting man, I'd lean much more towards the "best case" side in this game. I think everyone on that team and in that locker room knows exactly what happened in 2015 and there's no way we let it happen two years in a row. I fully expect a beat down primer game before heading to Death Valley. USC, 45-10. (7-4)
November 26th at Clemson:
Best Case: South Carolina, seen as a huge underdog, plays its best full game of the season. A couple of early breaks go the Gamecocks' way and they jump out to an early two score lead. The Tigers respond in the second half and the game enters the fourth quarter deadlocked at 21 apiece. After a Deshaun Watson score early in the period gives Clemson a 28-21 lead, and with Death Valley noise ringing in his ears, true freshman Brandon McIlwain leads a 14-play 92-yard touchdown drive in the final minutes to knot the score at 28-28 and send the game into overtime. After winning the coin toss and stopping the Tiger's offense at the 2-yard line to force a field goal, the Gamecocks get the ball needing a touchdown to win. McIlwain makes back-to-back third down conversions with his legs and the Gamecock offense pushes down to the 1-yard line before getting stuffed on third-and-goal. Faced with fourth-and-goal at the 1-yard line, Will Muschamp decides to go for the win. With the stadium shaking and the game on the line, South Carolina runs the toss sweep to true freshman Rico Dowdle, who just out-runs the Clemson defender and leaps over the corner pylon to give the Gamecocks the biggest upset in the history of the rivalry. USC, 34-31.
Worst Case: I think we all know what this looks like without me having to spell it out for you. Let's just agree that this would suck and move on. Clemson, DOOOOOOOOONNNNNN'T CARE.
Most Likely Case: As much as I would love to see us come out and beat those cow-humpers in their own stadium in a year like this, it truly would take South Carolina's best effort of the season, and a few breaks, for that to happen. I guess that's not impossible, per se, but let's just say that the Tigers have the huge edge on paper as of today. I hope I get to eat crow, everybody. Clemson, closer than the experts think. (7-5)
FINAL RECORD: 7-5, 4-4 in SEC