TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Even though he had long known the opponents, one has to wonder what Will Muschamp’s reaction was when first seeing South Carolina’s schedule this season.
A hand on his forehead would have been perfectly understandable although he’d publicly never admit it. The man who bristled at the notion of being “the little brother” in the state to the reigning national champions has been telling everyone that this is his best South Carolina team yet.
It may be, especially since essentially everyone on the roster was recruited by the fourth-year head coach, resulting in more experience and depth.
Nevertheless, the offseason talk regarding the Gamecocks has remained centered on the schedule, including about how when Alabama comes calling for the first time in nearly a decade it’ll be looking for a little payback.
“We got the lining kicked out of our britches in the game over there,” Nick Saban said about the 2010 visit to Williams-Brice Stadium.
It was Oct. 9, when coming off its first national title under the coach the Crimson Tide faced the first of seven straight opponents fresh off a bye. Alabama had won 19 straight and had just made No. 7 Florida look bad at home, only to get thumped 35-21.
Quarterback Stephen Garcia had a career game, going 17-for-20 for 201 yards and three touchdown passes, two to standout wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Running back Marcus Lattimore scored three times and totaled 109 yards as the Crimson Tide defense yielded its most points since the 41-34 loss to LSU in 2007.
With the first win over a team ranked No. 1 in program history, South Carolina fans stormed the field — starting a celebratory trend that continues today when Alabama loses on the road.
“It was just one of those games where our guys really, really played well, and Alabama, they didn’t have their best stuff that day,” former Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier said.
Although no one who will play in the rematch was on the field that day, it’ll be a talking point in the days leading up to the game. South Carolina has spent a good part of the decade as the lone SEC opponent in which Alabama doesn’t have a winning streak against.
“I was like what, 13?” South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley said about the last time the teams played. “I was like outside probably trying to hit a tree with a football, or something like that.”
However, the Crimson Tide isn’t the only college football giant the Gamecocks have to worry about this season.
South Carolina visits Georgia on Oct. 12, and hosts rival Clemson to wrap up the regular season on Nov. 30.
Clemson, Alabama and Georgia are expected to be the top three teams when the preseason AP Top 25 and coaches poll are released.
The Gamecocks also host Florida on Oct. 19, visit Texas A&M on Nov. 16, plus has what could be a showdown game at Missouri a week after facing Alabama — when there’s a decent chance the Tigers will be ranked.
Overall, South Carolina is 1-11 against ranked teams under Muschamp, with the lone win against No. 18 Tennessee in 2016. It’s lost 10 straight.
“We have to find a way to win those games,” Bentley said. “It’s games like that which decide our season.
“I think the biggest thing this year is to not go into those games with a different mindset.”
Even though the SEC opener for both teams is still a ways off, for South Carolina to have a chance to to pull off another upset it’ll need a similar performance by its quarterback and top wide receiver, in this case Bentley and wide receiver Bryan Edwards, who are more than capable.
Bentley was third in league passing yards (264.2 yards per game) and sixth in passing efficiency last season. He’s on the verge of numerous program career passing records.
The Gamecocks will also have to play better defense from last season. They finished eighth in the SEC in passing-efficiency defense, 11th in scoring defense, 12th in total defense and 13th in rushing defense.
Alabama, which returns nearly everyone in the passing game, was first in total, scoring and passing-efficiency offense.
“Defensively, we flat-out struggled,” Muschamp said. “We weren’t very good. Call it like it is.
“Some of the growing pains that we went through this past year will be positives for us.”
That will have to begin with the quarterback, who just made his third appearance at SEC media days. Turnovers have kept him from being considered an elite player.
Only three quarterbacks in college football had more passes picked off last season (14), and many were in the red zone.
Consequently, South Carolina was 6-0 when having an edge in turnovers, and 1-6 when it didn’t.
Neither side had an advantage during the 2010 matchup, one of the few things that didn’t go South Carolina’s way that day. But that Gamecocks team could put a lot more energy into preparing for the Crimson Tide.
This will be an even bigger challenge as Alabama figures to have a little extra motivation, plus there's that thing about Saban still being undefeated against his former assistant coaches (16-0).
“Just knowing that you are going to play against the best of the best, it is always exciting,” said senior linebacker T.J. Brunson, who has made 206 career tackles and six sacks. “I think guys are looking forward to it.”
This is the first story in a series examining Alabama’s SEC opponents this season.