SKETCHY, OPTIMISTIC, NONBINDING PREDICTIONS
A break from the nuts and bolts look at the Gamecocks for a look from the 50,000 foot level.
Namely, what can be expected from the schedule South Carolina faces this year.
More specifics -- and more binding selections -- will come later, including in team-by-team breakdowns of the schedule. This is just where C&F sees things standing right now.
A few caveats: There are no locks in the "LOSS" column on the principle that no games should be written off at the beginning of a season. And C&F will admit up front that some of the predictions are on the optimistic side. Don't worry. It's late August; there's plenty of time for pessimism in the weeks ahead.
LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE. The Ragin' Cajuns are expected to be a middle-of-the-pack team in the pungently horrific Sun Belt conference, which is only Division I-A thanks to the dent of history. La-La is in rebuilding mode on offense. A trap game? Hardly. WIN
AT GEORGIA. Always a difficult game to call, because most of the teams' matchups have turned into Georgia wins, but only after bizarre or heartbreaking moments in what is a blossoming SEC East rivalry. The spelling-challenged Dawgs are a trendy pick to at least do well in the East -- and maybe win it -- though that is largely because of QB Matthew Stafford, RB Kregg Lumpkin and the reputation of head coach Mark Richt. UGA has been decimated by the loss of starters and could be stung by a home upset at the hands of Oklahoma State. TOSS UP
SOUTH CAROLINA STATE. Barring a catastrophe, this shouldn't turn into another version of last season's game against Wofford. Shouldn't. If it does, a rough season could be ahead. WIN
AT LSU. The Bayou Bengals return to the schedule in what should be the most difficult game on a difficult slate. JaMarcus Russell is gone, but the Tigers are expected to be fine with starter-in-waiting Matt Flynn. And LSU consumes talent the way Phil Fulmer consumes Twinkies. Barring a Les-splosion, this is is not a good game for the Gamecocks. The one hope South Carolina has? It's fairly early in the season, and the Tigers could still be working through some kinks. PROBABLE LOSS
Did somebody say Twinkies?
MISSISSIPPI STATE. Playing in Starkville last year, the offense was startlingly sluggish -- a precursor, perhaps, of the trouble ahead. But Sylvester Croom has yet to show that he can post anything close to a .500 record at Mississippi State, and the Bulldogs are expected to end up in the SEC West cellar again next year. And the game is in Columbia this season. PROBABLE WIN
KENTUCKY. A Thursday showdown between two schools that could be the surprise stories of the East this year. If the magic happens, odds say it will only happen to one or the other, since a South Carolina-Kentucky one-two punch would almost certainly come days before President Bush admits he has made mistakes graver than sending Sammy Sosa to Chicago. QB Andre Woodson is scary good. WR Dicky Lyons and RB Rafael Little have the potential to be gamebreakers. A defense that got gashed in 2006 -- a lot -- returns more experienced. Could be a fun battle for the team that wins, a heartbreaker for the loser. Give South Carolina the slightest of edges with the battle set in Columbia. TOSS UP
AT NORTH CAROLINA. Butch Davis is expected to turn around the Tarheels -- in a few years. John Bunting left little behind for Davis to pin his hopes on, and UNC is expected to do poorly in the middling ACC. The next matchup between the teams, in 2010, could be an interesting one. This should be an easy victory for South Carolina on the road. PROBABLE WIN
VANDERBILT. Pity Bobby Johnson. He's seen as a great coach for Vanderbilt, and he's 15-43. The 2005 season promised a shot at the postseason until a disastrous implosion against Middle Tennessee State. He again has one of the most talented squads in Vanderbilt history, but it is Vanderbilt history. All that said, if there is a good chance for the Gamecocks to be shocked at home, this is the game. LIKELY WIN
AT TENNESSEE. Figure out Tennessee. Please. And let me know if you do. The program seems to have slipped since 1998, and became particularly stagnant over the past two seasons. Evil Erik Ainge showed up in 2005, followed by Good Erik in 2006. Vols fans are hoping that '05 was a sophomore slump and they can avenge that season's loss at the hands of the hated Spurrier at Neyland. But Ainge has little experience around him, and this will be the third game against a likely bowl team in four weeks, following a home game against Georgia and road trips to Mississippi State and Alabama. TOSS UP
AT ARKANSAS. An even tougher Nutt to crack. (Rim shot, please) No, Darren McFadden has not gone anywhere. Nor have Marcus Monk and Felix Jones. But the defense has been hit by a loss of experience and the program itself has been rocked by a series of "scandals" that, let's face it, could only happen in Arkansas. TOSS UP
I need to teach Houston how to start a real scandal.
FLORIDA. If LSU is the hardest game on the schedule, this is easily the second-toughest. Despite a defense that will lose almost every starter it had and the departure of the puzzling QB Chris Leak, the Gators are still a favorite in many corners (including this one) to reclaim the SEC East crown. South Carolina's structural engineers are already working to make sure that Williams-Brice can withstand any damage QB Tim Tebow might cause, while WR Percy Harvin should be one of the most frightening players (to opponents) in the SEC. If South Carolina somehow manages to get by Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas, this one could be for the SEC East title. LIKELY LOSS
CLEMSON. If the Gamecocks are still standing during the final week of the Orange Crush, they take on the Tiggers at the WB. Spurrier vowed after the 2005 loss that he would never be defeated by Clemson again, and has so far made good on the threat after a 31-28 squeaker at Death Valley. History isn't on South Carolina's side; Clemson has gone 4-for-5 during each of the last two half-decades. The future of Tommy Bowden could play a key role in this game: A perceived or real threat to his job -- or an early firing -- could motivate the Tiggers. Meanwhile, Clemson will have run its own gauntlet leading into the game, with games against perennial heartburn Wake Forest and Boston College leading up to the Palmetto State showdown. There's always the DaviSpiller monster. TOSS UP
That would give the team five wins with two likely losses and five toss-ups. If a gun were put to C&F's head, he would move Kentucky and Clemson into the win column and push Tennessee into the loss category without making any commitment on Georgia or Arkansas -- two games that have been historically volatile. That sets up anything from a 7-5 to a 9-3 season, which seems about right.