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SEC Football Preview 2014: South Carolina's Schedule Features Bookends

The beginning and the end of the Gamecocks' season is probably going to determine just how far they go in 2014

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

South Carolina's schedule this year is a bit odd. When it comes to difficulty, it almost forms a bit of a "U" -- a difficult stretch of games to begin the year, a slightly easier stretch near the middle and then another package of mostly difficult games. There are some exceptions, of course -- the Missouri game comes near the middle of the schedule and won't be too easy, and the South Alabama game is near the end and shouldn't prove too hard -- but the pattern largely holds. What South Carolina does the first three weeks and the last three weeks of the season will likely determine whether this season is a failure or success. Winning those games would likely give the Gamecocks their second SEC East title in five years (though that's no sure thing) and extend a record-long winning streak against Clemson. And it would go a long way toward locking up a fourth straight 11-win season.

That's a September. A game against a new-look conference foe, a showdown with a perennially good mid-major, a potentially division-defining game, a contest against a team that always seems to scare South Carolina and a revenge match-up (for the other guys). That's a first month full of ESPN-ready storylines and some great football. Texas A&M, of course, is trying to replace Johnny Manziel while South Carolina is also breaking in a new quarterback. This one also happens to be the first game televised on the SEC Network. If the Gamecocks' somewhat reconstructed secondary gets through the game against the Aggies, they face another Air Raid team in East Carolina. The importance of the Georgia game shouldn't require explanation. Five of the last nine games between South Carolin and Vanderbilt have been decided by 10 points or less -- and one of the games that wasn't was a Vanderbilt win. And if only there were some way to illustrate how badly Missouri and its fans likely want revenge for their only regular-season loss last year ...

A lot of treats, then a trick. The first three weeks of October almost make up for the tough start. Trips to Lexington have often been harrowing for the Gamecocks, but South Carolina has still only lost once at Kentucky since an 0-11 season in 1999. South Carolina is just 1-1 over its last two games against Furman, but the loss happened in 1982, a decade before the Gamecocks joined the SEC. And they have the bye before the game against Furman, which is a great use of a week off. If there's some hope for South Carolina to win the game at Auburn, it is the two de facto bye weeks before that, but the Gamecocks haven't beaten this brand of Tigers since 1933. Auburn is 9-0-1 in the other 10 games between the two.

Return of the Orange Crush. It was a brutal tradition for South Carolina's football fortunes, but it was one of the only SEC scheduling traditions (outside of an early game against Georgia) that the Gamecocks had: the Orange Crush, a four-game stretch that always included Tennessee, Florida and Clemson along with one other team. It used to be Arkansas. Then, South Carolina started sneaking in a cupcake between Florida and Clemson, and then realignment shuffled things further -- to the point that this is the first time that the Gamecocks have faced something like the Orange Crush since 2009. Getting an extra bye week between the revenge game against Tennessee and the trip to Gainesville should help out a bit when it comes to squaring off against the Gators on the road, but the 2010 victory in the Swamp remains the only time South Carolina has won there in 14 tries.