Toughest stretch: South Carolina Gamecocks

The SEC doesn't shy away from calling itself the toughest conference to play in in all the land. There's a lot of bravado, but it's hard to ignore how tough of a league it is.

Calling it the best isn't a stretch by any means, and the fact that it's produced eight of the past 10 national champions is nothing to ignore.

That brings us to scheduling talk and a look at the toughest three- or four-game stretches for all 14 teams. Next up in the series are the South Carolina Gamecocks.


Toughest stretch: Oct. 29-Nov. 12 (vs. Tennessee, vs. Missouri, at Florida)

Why: When you’re coming off a 3-9 season, every section of the schedule looks tough -- especially when you dropped your final five games and seven of the past eight. However, one stretch stands out as the toughest portion of the Gamecocks’ 2016 slate: when they complete October by hosting SEC East favorite Tennessee and then open November with a home date against Missouri and a road game against Florida.

Fresh off its home showdown with hated rival Alabama, Tennessee will have an open date when it visits Williams-Brice Stadium on Oct. 29. South Carolina will be coming off what should be a relatively easy victory over UMass. But will it matter? Tennessee has won three in a row in this series, dating back to when Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks were still among the top teams in the SEC. From a talent perspective, new coach Will Muschamp’s current team is well behind the club that got upset at Neyland Stadium in 2013, and this might be the best team Tennessee has fielded since its last SEC East title, in 2007. Of note: Neither team has won this annual game by more than three points since 2011.

Missouri has won both games against the Gamecocks since Spurrier’s club dealt Mizzou its lone loss of the 2013 regular season with a thrilling 27-24 win at Faurot Field. Both teams will be breaking in new, defensive-minded head coaches this season -- Muschamp at South Carolina and Barry Odom at Missouri -- after their 2015 seasons were largely undone by sputtering offenses. It would hardly be a shock if this were a low-scoring contest, and it might be a game the Gamecocks need to win if they want to make it back to bowl eligibility.

Muschamp’s team closes out this challenging three-game stretch with a visit to defending SEC East champ Florida. This was always an intriguing game during the Spurrier era because of the Gators legend’s history in Gainesville. Muschamp’s history at Florida will also make for an interesting storyline leading up to this Nov. 12 game -- but not for the sunny reasons that surrounded the Spurrier-Florida reunions. Muschamp spent four seasons as the Gators’ head coach – including a 2012 campaign where they were in the BCS championship picture and finished the season 11-2 and ninth in the Associated Press Top 25. However, Florida showed him the door toward the end of the 2014 season after consecutive 4-8 and 6-5 campaigns. Rest assured that this game will mean a little something extra to Muschamp and some of his staffers as they return to the Swamp, but will that be enough? South Carolina will not only be playing on the road, it will face a decided talent disadvantage in this one.

We should have a good idea about whether South Carolina will be a more formidable team after a game or two, as the Gamecocks play their first two games on the road against Vanderbilt and Mississippi State. Victories there would indicate that bowl eligibility is a legitimate possibility in Year 1 under Muschamp, and it just might add some spice to this late-season stretch. But if Muschamp’s team stumbles out of the gate, these three games might be a period where the Gamecocks are simply playing out the string, waiting for next season to continue their rebuilding project under their new coaching staff.