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Toughest stretch: South Carolina

This week we continue our look at the toughest stretches that each SEC team will face on their 2015 schedules. Today we turn our focus to South Carolina, which has a key four-game run early in the season that could determine whether this fall will be a success after slipping to 7-6 last year.

SOUTH CAROLINA

Toughest stretch: Sept. 19-Oct. 10 (at Georgia, vs. UCF, at Missouri, vs. LSU)

Why: There are a couple of nasty stretches on the Gamecocks’ schedule (we also considered a three-week run that features road games at Texas A&M and Tennessee and a home date with Florida), but this one almost certainly will determine whether Steve Spurrier’s club contends in the SEC East.

Georgia and South Carolina both will break in a new starting quarterback this fall, and both will have played just one conference game by the time they meet on Sept. 19 at Sanford Stadium. It will be the first road SEC start for the Gamecocks’ new QB.

South Carolina has controlled this series in recent years, winning four of the last five against the Bulldogs, but winning at Georgia will be a tall order for Connor Mitch -- assuming he wins the race to succeed Dylan Thompson as South Carolina’s quarterback. Georgia will rank among the preseason favorites to win the East for good reason. The Bulldogs return stars on both sides of the ball and will play many of their most difficult conference games at home.

Next, the Central Florida game is one that most SEC fans would expect South Carolina to win, but the Knights aren’t your typical nonconference pushovers. George O’Leary’s program is 21-5 over the last two seasons, and it nearly handed a strong South Carolina team an upset loss when they last met in 2013 (the Gamecocks held on 28-25). The game’s placement on the schedule -- among three enormous conference games -- might make this one dangerous.

Assuming the Gamecocks are still alive in the conference race by this point, they still must face two of the most challenging games of the entire season in the coming weeks.

South Carolina-Missouri has been packed with drama in the last two seasons, with the Gamecocks winning in overtime in 2013 and Mizzou returning the favor last year by overcoming a late 20-7 deficit to win 21-20. The Tigers won the SEC East in each of those seasons, and they certainly rank among the leading contenders to reach Atlanta again -- particularly if they win this one against the Gamecocks on Oct. 3.

Now take a deep breath, Gamecocks fans. There’s just one game left in this nasty stretch of schedule. Unfortunately, this last outing will pit LSU tailback Leonard Fournette and what should be a strong offensive line against a South Carolina defense that struggled against the run last season.

Lorenzo Ward’s defense gave up 235.8 rushing yards per game in conference play in 2014, which ranked among the nation’s worst and led only Texas A&M (271.5) in the SEC. The Gamecocks already will have faced a couple of strong running teams in this stretch (Georgia, led by Nick Chubb, plus Missouri and Russell Hansbrough) so we should have a good idea whether Ward and Jon Hoke’s defense is significantly better. But Fournette certainly won’t be any easier to defend than those other two backs.

LSU’s defense should rank among the SEC’s best, so keeping the opposing running game in check will likely be the key to victory in this one -- and throughout this stretch that could determine whether the Gamecocks bounce back from last season’s disappointing results.