South Carolina vs. Coastal Carolina 2018

Will Muschamp, 2001

A lot has been made of South Carolina’s 2019 schedule, which ESPN rated the toughest in the country.

Will Muschamp has been asked about it nearly everywhere he has gone the past several months.

“I love it. That’s why you come to the Southeastern Conference and why you come to South Carolina,” he said. “We play a bunch of good teams. It’s hard every single year but we embrace it. It’s an opportunity to take a step forward in our program and an opportunity to play in the biggest lights there are in college football. We are looking forward to it.”

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South Carolina plays the top three teams in the country — Clemson, Alabama and Georgia — with two of them (Alabama and Clemson) visiting Williams-Brice Stadium. Unless the Gamecocks upset one of the Big Three, they will need to win eight of its other nine games to improve on last year’s 7-6 season. That means knocking off at least one of the other two top-12 teams on the schedule — Florida and Texas A&M.

Muschamp has his best team in his fourth season, one with the depth and talent to compete in the SEC East and possibly challenge the top teams. If he can win eight games against this year’s schedule, it will go a long way toward making fans forget last year’s disappointment, which ended with a 28-0 loss to Virginia in the Belk Bowl, and give him two eight- or nine-win seasons in four years.

An upset of one of the top three — not out of the question — would be huge for the program, but those games represent a big challenge. Here’s a look at five other big games the Gamecocks must win.

Aug. 31 vs. North Carolina

Ask Muschamp which is the biggest game, he has a quick and easy answer. The next one. Or, in this case, the first one.

The Gamecocks open the season in Charlotte, where they are 3-1, including a 17-13 win over North Carolina in 2015. Muschamp will square off against his old mentor Mack Brown, who came out of retirement to return to North Carolina.

Brown has a big rebuilding job after the Tar Heels were 2-9 last year and won just five games the past two seasons.

With No. 1 Alabama looming in Week 3, South Carolina must get off to a good start. A win over North Carolina would set the Gamecocks up for a 2-0 start with Charleston Southern visiting Columbia for the home opener.

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Sept. 21 at Missouri

Unless South Carolina upsets Alabama for the second time in 10 years, the Gamecocks should travel to Missouri with a chance to start 3-1.

The Gamecocks have won three straight against Missouri, including a 31-13 win in Columbia, Mo. in 2017. Four of the last seven games between the two schools have been decided by 10 points or less, including last year’s 37-35 thriller at Williams-Brice.

Missouri, 8-5 last season, is expected to have a strong team again and is ranked just outside the top 25 so this will be a tough one. But it also represents a chance for South Carolina to win a key SEC road game against a quality opponent, a big step toward having a successful season.

Sept. 28 vs. Kentucky

If the Gamecocks can take out Missouri, they could start the season 4-1 with a home win over Kentucky.

Of course, that has been easier said than done in recent years. After dominating Kentucky for years, South Carolina has lost five straight to the Wildcats. The Gamecocks could have started 3-0 in 2017 but fell to Kentucky 23-13 at home. They lost 24-10 in another lackluster performance in Lexington last year.

Kentucky could be ripe for a letdown after losing 14 starters from last year’s 10-3 team. The Gamecocks must take advantage and stop the losing streak. This will be a pivotal game in front of a big home crowd. Regardless of what happens against Alabama or at Missouri, they have to win this one.

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Oct. 19 vs. Florida

A week after traveling to Georgia, South Carolina returns home for one of its biggest games of the year.

Muschamp beat his former team in Columbia in 2017 and had the Gators on the ropes in Gainesville last year before Dan Mullen’s first Florida team rallied from a 31-14 third-quarter deficit. That loss stung, setting up the Gamecocks for a 2-3 finish.

They need to take advantage of home-field advantage this year and avenge last year’s letdown. If all goes according to plan, South Carolina could move to at least 5-2 with a win over Florida and a trip to Knoxville up next.

Nov. 16 at Texas A&M

Regardless of what happens against the big three and Florida, the trip to College Station will likely loom large. The Gamecocks will be coming off three winnable games (Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Appalachian State) and could be sitting with at least six or seven wins by the time they head to Texas.

South Carolina has yet to beat Texas A&M, but has played the Aggies tough the last four years, including a 26-23 loss in Columbia last year. With Clemson up next in the season finale, the Gamecocks could reach seven or eight wins with a win over the Aggies and gain some serious momentum before their rivalry game.

Worst-case scenario, they could be playing for bowl eligibility or better bowl positioning in Week 11.