South Carolina Football: Ranking the Hardest Games of the 2014 Schedule

Lee Schechter@@leeschechterContributor IIIMarch 19, 2014

South Carolina Football: Ranking the Hardest Games of the 2014 Schedule

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    RICHARD SHIRO/Associated Press

    South Carolina's schedule in 2013 was advantageous and the Gamecocks seized most of the opportunities en route to a high end-of-season ranking. Unfortunately, the 2014 season looks to feature a tougher road for the Gamecocks, but they have a team up for the task. 

    The SEC will be strong as always, but several key players who have previously dominated college football are headed to the draft. 

    South Carolina doesn't have an easy draw, as they have non-divisional games against Texas A&M and SEC champion and BCS runner-up Auburn. The Gamecocks will need to bring their A+ game every week to survive the tough schedule. 

    Criteria for the rankings are the strength of the opponent, whether the game is at home or on the road, and the positioning of the game in the schedule. 

    Here is a ranking list of the hardest games of 2014 for the South Carolina Gamecocks. 

No. 11: Furman and South Alabama

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    RICHARD SHIRO/Associated Press

    It's a bit of a tossup to pick between these two teams for the easiest game of the year. 

    Furman got thrashed by LSU last season and South Alabama didn't exactly play any significant teams.

    These are the cupcake games of the South Carolina schedule in 2014 and both are at home. Don't expect any upsets here as the Gamecocks will cruise to victory in both. 

    Furman and South Alabama are the easiest games of 2014. 

No. 10: East Carolina

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    The pass-happy East Carolina Pirates are no scrub of a football team despite playing in Conference USA. 

    The Pirates have an offense that puts up a lot of points and passing yards. Don't expect those standards to change for East Carolina in 2014. 

    The Pirates are capable of an upset, but this is a home game for South Carolina. 

    Normally, this would be considered a somewhat tough non-conference game for the Gamecocks, but given the strength of the rest of the schedule, the East Carolina game comes in at No. 10. 

No. 9: At Kentucky

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    Kentucky struggled in 2013, not winning a single game in the SEC. 

    While I don't think Kentucky will be anywhere near that bad with Mike Stoops at the helm for another year, Kentucky is still one of the easier opponents in the SEC, if not the easiest. 

    Kentucky played tough against South Carolina and can be competitive, but these teams are still leagues apart. Stoops has a rising team; give Kentucky a few years and you will see a group that's highly competitive in the SEC. That time is not now. 

    Despite this game being on the road, it's a very winnable matchup for the garnet and black. 

No. 8: At Vanderbilt

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    Former Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin is now at Penn State, though he left behind a solid football team in Nashville. 

    The Commodores are coming off a good season with nine wins. 

    Throw into the mix what I consider to be a very good hire with the addition of Derek Mason as head coach and Vanderbilt looks like a scary opponent. Mason is a defensive stud of a coach and Vanderbilt already has a pretty good defense to build on. 

    Even with Mason and a good team, I see a decline for Vanderbilt in Year 1 of the Mason era, and South Carolina will contribute to that. Nashville isn't exactly the toughest of places to play in the SEC, so this game comes in on the lower end of the list. 

No. 7: At Florida

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    Typically a road game at Florida would be a big challenge in the schedule. I only have this game at No. 7, though, so what gives?

    Part of the reason is that Florida is really struggling after tanking the end of the 2013 season. Will Muschamp is on the hot seat and I don't see 2014 going too well for the Gators. 

    The other reason is that South Carolina's schedule is really, really tough and Florida just doesn't have the firepower to be any higher. 

    Florida had some injury problems last year, but the real issues are deeper than that. Head ball coach Steve Spurrier will look to beat his alma mater again, and this is one of the easier SEC games for South Carolina despite playing in "The Swamp."

No. 6: Tennessee

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    I know, I tend to underestimate Tennessee. After all, Tennessee managed to defeat South Carolina last when I expected a pretty easy game for the Gamecocks. 

    I might be making the same mistake again, but I just don't see South Carolina struggling at home against the Volunteers. 

    South Carolina has won its last three home games against Tennessee and will see a fourth victory in 2014. Marquez North and the Tennessee receivers could wreak havoc on the young South Carolina secondary, but the Gamecocks are simply a better team and should win. 

    I'm sticking with this being an easier game, but I said the same last year. We will see in 2014. 

No. 5: Texas A&M

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    Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

    Johnny Football is gone. Mike Evans is gone. Jake Matthews is gone. But, head coach Kevin Sumlin is back. 

    Texas A&M will be a good team in 2014, but it is going to be without a few big stars. Look out for newcomer Speedy Noil, though. He is speedy, as his name suggests. 

    South Carolina lucks out a bit by avoiding playing this game at College Station and dealing with the 12th man. Williams-Brice Stadium will treat South Carolina well in 2014 as it has for the last 18 wins. 

    It's the season opener and South Carolina will debut its inexperienced group of cornerbacks, but Texas A&M has a lot of holes to fill in 2014. This game is tough, but not the toughest.

No. 4: At Clemson

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    Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

    Clemson will be a good team in 2014; the Tigers are always a very competitive team. 

    With Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins headed to the NFL, though, the landscape of the changes a bit. Sure, the Tigers were lucky to get Vic Beasley back, but that isn't enough.  

    Like I said, Clemson is a good team, but Spurrier has Clemson's number and that factors a lot into the difficulty of this game. Playing on the road is tough, especially in this intense rivalry.

    But when Spurrier dominates another program, he dominates them. While the win streak against its in-state rival will end at some point, South Carolina is the better team in 2014. 

    The Gamecocks will face scarier teams in 2014, and Spurrier has not overpowered those teams in recent years. 

No. 3: Georgia

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    Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

    You almost have to feel bad for Georgia's 2013 season...almost. 

    The Bulldogs started strong by beating South Carolina, but their season took a turn for the worse when they were ravaged by the injury bug. 

    Georgia is replacing quarterback Aaron Murray, but will return a deadly backfield combination of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. 

    Georgia also has a more experienced defense and strong offensive line that should make this 2014 matchup very fun to watch. 

    The biggest factor in this game will be that South Carolina doesn't have to travel to Athens. The Gamecocks can enjoy its home sweet home of Williams-Brice Stadium. 

    Georgia is no slouch of an opponent in 2014, as I assume it will be a healthier, focused team. But the fact that this is a home game for South Carolina and they still have tougher opponents leaves the Georgia game rated as No. 3 right now. 

No. 2: Missouri

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    Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

    Missouri was one of the big surprises of 2014 and, quite frankly, the Tigers should have beaten South Carolina. Connor Shaw was able to will the Gamecocks to victory in a memorable game. 

    The Tigers return quarterback Maty Mauk and star wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, making the Missouri offense a difficult matchup yet again. 

    Michael Sam is gone and the Missouri defense might need some work to get into form, but seeing as this is the fifth game of the season, their defense should be ready. 

    Missouri is the defending SEC East champion and the Tigers have a lot of depth; players will be ready to step up.

    Missouri will be hungry, not wanting to let another lead and big opportunity slip through its hands. Missouri will be really tough in 2014, but it isn't the toughest game, mostly because the game will be played in Columbia. 

    There is another Tigers team in the SEC that will be even tougher. 

No. 1: At Auburn

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    Auburn is the defending SEC champion and BCS runner-up, so the Tigers will be really tough again in 2014. 

    Auburn parts with its workhorse running back Tre Mason and the nation's top offensive tackle in Greg Robinson. The defense will also need to replace Dee Ford and Chris Davis. But, so long as Auburn has Nick Marshall and head coach Gus Malzahn calling the shots, this is going to be one of the toughest teams to face in the SEC. 

    The Tigers will continue to be an offensive juggernaut that punishes teams on the ground, so the pressure will be on South Carolina's front seven. 

    Both of these teams are very talented, but Auburn will have all of War Eagle on its side as this game will be in Auburn, Ala. 

    If South Carolina wants to achieve glory in the SEC, it's going to have to power through a bunch of tough teams, but none will be tougher than the defending champions.