Ranking USC’s five most important games for 2014

GoGamecocks staff reportsJuly 5, 2014 

South Carolina's annual SEC East showdown with Georgia moves back to Williams-Brice Stadium this year.

KIM KIM FOSTER-TOBIN — kkfoster@thestate.com

  • USC’s 2014 schedule

    USC’s opponents had a combined record of 96-59 this past season.

    Aug. 28: Texas A&M (9-4)

    Sept. 6: East Carolina (10-3)

    Sept. 13: Georgia (8-5)

    Sept. 20: at Vanderbilt (9-4)

    Sept. 27: Missouri (12-2)

    Oct. 4: at Kentucky (2-10)

    Oct. 11: OPEN WEEK

    Oct. 18: Furman (8-6)

    Oct. 25: at Auburn (12-2)

    Nov. 1: Tennessee (5-7)

    Nov. 8: OPEN WEEK

    Nov. 15: at Florida (4-8)

    Nov. 22: South Alabama (6-6)

    Nov. 29: at Clemson (11-2)

5. Tennessee

Nov. 1, kickoff time TBA, Williams-Brice Stadium

USC record vs. Tennessee under Spurrier: 5-4

Last year: Tennessee won 23-21 at Neyland Stadium on a last-second field goal

Schedule note: A week before, USC travels to Auburn, while the Vols are facing Alabama in Rocky Top

Why it’s important: USC stubbed its toe against a down Volunteers team last year and will be looking for some level of revenge when Tennessee visits in November. The Gamecocks have won three straight against UT at Williams-Brice, and this is likely to be a must-win game for USC and its SEC title hopes in the second-to-last SEC game on the schedule.

Tennessee post-spring report: In the spring game, the offense looked really, really good and the defense looked really, really bad. It’s the spring, so it shouldn’t be taken too lightly; on the other hand, it’s young talent that didn’t know enough to scale it down in the spring. Josh Malone has become the hot name among the SEC as a future star wide receiver, and the Volunteers already had one of those in Marquez North. The Volunteers looked terrific with big-play offense, but it also seemed as if the defense had no idea how to tackle. That’s not going to fly in the SEC. Butch Jones won’t name a quarterback until the preseason, but his biggest decisions will be on who’s going to stop the other quarterback.

Josh Kendall says: “Gamecocks need to put last year’s dud behind them and can’t afford to give away a winnable game in what figures to be another tight SEC East race.”

David Cloninger says: “The only home SEC game among the last three, USC has to get this one to keep an SEC title hope alive. While it won’t erase the stunning loss in Knoxville last year, it might soothe some wounds to hang ‘half a hundred’ or so.”

4. Clemson

Nov. 29, kickoff time TBA, Memorial Stadium, Clemson

USC record vs. Clemson under Spurrier: 6-3

Last year: USC won 31-17 at Williams-Brice Stadium

Schedule note: USC hosts South Alabama the week before, while Clemson plays at home against Georgia State

Why it’s important: USC has won an unprecedented five straight games against Clemson. You might have heard that. The Gamecocks will go for No. 6 against “that big orange team from the Upstate” in a game that’s always big for USC fans’ end-of-season demeanor. Could this be a second-straight meeting in which both teams are ranked in the nation’s top 10? The Gamecocks have won five of the six previous ranked matchups. It’s the final regular-season game, so a win is great for momentum and fans’ enthusiasm for the postseason, which USC hopes begins a week later in Atlanta.

Clemson post-spring report: The Tigers’ offense is in transition. Gone are quarterback Tajh Boyd, running back Rod McDowell, and receivers Sammy Watkins and Martavis Bryant. Clemson’s three-quarterback competition became two when Chad Kelly was dismissed from the team. Cole Stoudt, who played the past two seasons as Boyd’s backup, will battle freshman Deshaun Watson for the job. Needing to replace McDowell’s 1,000 rushing yards, Clemson has tried to stockpile running backs. Coach Dabo Swinney has pumped up redshirt freshman running back Wayne Gallman, but senior D.J. Howard is tops on the depth chart. Charone Peake and Mike Williams step into starting roles at receiver. The defense is without all those question marks. An all-senior defensive line is led by All-American defensive end Vic Beasley. Seniors Stephone Anthony and Tony Steward lead the linebackers.

Josh Kendall: “You gotta ride a hot streak as long as you can. Gamecocks now have psychological edge over Tigers and must take advantage as long as they can.”

David Cloninger says: “Always important, but secondary to the dream of an SEC championship. Back to the Valley, where Dylan Thompson shined so brightly two years ago, for a chance at something never before dreamed of – Six Straight.”

3. Florida

Nov. 15, kickoff time TBA, Ben Hill Griffin Stadium, Gainesville, Fla.

USC record vs. Florida under Spurrier: 4-5

Last year: USC won 19-14 at Williams-Brice Stadium

Schedule note: Florida will be coming off a trip to Vanderbilt, while USC heads to Gainesville after an open week.

Why it’s important: The Gamecocks clinched the SEC East title here in 2010. This game could have championship game implications again this year, as USC certainly has a goal to be in the thick of the race. If the Gators are relevant as well, that means a tremendous rebound for a Florida team that finished 4-8 overall and 3-5 in the SEC in 2013. Florida played USC tough last year at Williams-Brice and whipped the Gamecocks 44-11 in 2012 at Ben Hill Griffin Stadium.

Florida post-spring report: The offense was much improved, but it had to be after the sputtering, plodding mess that led to a 4-8 disaster a year ago. Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, fresh from David Cutcliffe’s staff at Duke, said that 15 spring practices would be enough to learn the new system and by all accounts, they were. The Gators were much more excited and flowed much smoother, although it was spring. Jeff Driskel is back for another year under center, and if a very thin offensive line can stay intact, Florida can get back to where it’s used to being.

Josh Kendall says: “The Gators won't be as bad as they were last year (right?) and could be back in the SEC East hunt. That makes this a game with championship implications.”

David Cloninger says: “This is the game that cost USC the SEC East two years ago, an early case of fumble-itis spoiling a fine defensive effort. The Gamecocks were hammered on Spurrier's former home field, then barely beat a bad Florida team at home last year. They need this one.”

2. Texas A&M

6 p.m. Thursday, Aug 28 (SEC Network), Williams-Brice Stadium

USC record vs. Texas A&M under Spurrier: First meeting

Schedule note: Season-opener for both teams

Why it’s so important: The Gamecocks want to kick-start the 2014 season with a victory, coming off three-straight 11-2 seasons and a program-best No. 4 finish. Everyone wants to see what the team looks like minus Connor Shaw and Jadeveon Clowney. USC breaks in a new, but not inexperienced, quarterback in Dylan Thompson. A new-look defensive line and secondary also debut for the Gamecocks. And it’s the first-ever game on the SEC Network. USC is favored by nine points, according to point spreads released in April by the offshore online book, 5Dimes.eu.

Texas A&M post-spring report: The post-Johnny Era begins with a lot of uncertainty. Senior backup QB Matt Joeckel decided to transfer when it became apparent he wasn’t going to play, leaving the job to Kyle Allen or Kenny Hill. Hill didn’t help his cause with a spring arrest, and Allen is a true freshman. Whoever wins the job, Kevin Sumlin’s offense isn’t going to change. The Aggies will throw and throw a lot. Their defense may have to pave a few games if A&M’s offense struggles at first, but the looming question will always be if the team can be as exciting and dangerous as it was with Manziel calling the shots. The Aggies have also dealt with several offseason player arrests.

Josh Kendall says: “The Aggies are expected to be down but will still be dangerous. A loss in opener would undermine confidence of team building under new quarterback.”

David Cloninger says: “No Johnny Football, but the Aggies will still throw it all over the field. Gamecocks have to bottle the home Thursday-night hype and use it in a game that may feature some nervous moments, especially with a rebuilt secondary.”

1. Georgia

3:30 pm, Saturday, Sept. 13 (CBS), Williams-Brice Stadium

USC record vs. Georgia under Steve Spurrier: 4-5

Last year: Georgia won 41-30 in Athens, snapping a three-game USC winning streak

Schedule note: USC hosts East Carolina the week before. This is game No. 2 for Georgia, which opens with Clemson and then gets a bye and two weeks to prepare for the Gamecocks.

Why it’s so important: The Gamecocks’ SEC slate often begins with its showdown with the Bulldogs, but that’s not the case this year. Still, this is the third game on USC’s 2014 schedule and will set the tone early on in the SEC East race. USC gave up several big plays in Athens last year but thumped the Bulldogs 35-7 in 2012 at Williams-Brice.

Georgia post-spring report: Incumbent quarterback Hutson Mason looked great after starting two games last year in relief of the injured Aaron Murray, and then taking it through a spring session, but that’s about the only settled thing out of the Bulldogs’ camp. With a new defensive coordinator and staff, nobody seems assured of a starting job, not even Georgia’s superlatives from last season. Ramik Wilson, who led the SEC with 133 tackles; Amarlo Herrera (112); nor linebacker Leonard Floyd (a team-high 6.5 sacks) are presumed to start this season but DC Jeremy Pruitt cautioned prognosticators not to jump the gun on those assumptions. Also, three defensive backs are gone: Tray Matthews was dismissed, while Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shaq Wiggins transferred.

Josh Kendall says: “Maybe this time it will actually count toward the division race.”

David Cloninger says: “Goes a long way toward determining the SEC East champion. Win this one, and it’s OK to stub your toe later on.”

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