Schedule analysis: South Carolina

South Carolina's road to Atlanta looks a bit less bumpy compared to last season.

Nonconference opponents (with 2013 records)

Sept. 6: East Carolina (10-3)

Oct. 18: Furman (8-6)

Nov. 22: South Alabama (6-6)

Nov. 29: at Clemson (11-2)

SEC home games

Aug. 28: Texas A&M

Sept. 13: Georgia

Sept. 27: Missouri

Nov. 1: Tennessee

SEC road games

Sept. 20: at Vanderbilt

Oct. 4: at Kentucky

Oct. 25: at Auburn

Nov. 15: at Florida

Gut-check time: The season kicks off with South Carolina playing host to Texas A&M, so all eyes (or at least those that get the SEC Network) will be on Columbia, S.C., and Williams-Brice Stadium. It'll be a fascinating matchup, as both teams have lost a ton of star power. The Gamecocks will have to prepare for two very different types of quarterback, as Johnny Manziel's successor could be dual-threat sophomore Kenny Hill or drop-back passing freshman Kyle Allen. A&M promises to have an improved defense in 2014, which would make for a close game.

Trap game: Tucked in between the season-opener and a Week 3 SEC East rivalry game against Georgia is a nonconference home game against East Carolina. The Pirates are a dangerous team as evidenced by convincing wins on the road against North Carolina and NC State last season. Expect ECU to test the Gamecocks' inexperienced cornerbacks. The Pirates love to throw the ball around with senior signal-caller Shane Carden, who was the Conference USA MVP in 2013.

Snoozers: A year after scheduling North Carolina and UCF, the Gamecocks' nonconference schedule is taking a step backward. Furman is an FCS team that gets paid once a season to be crushed by an FBS power. South Alabama is a very young program set to play its second season as a member of the FBS. South Carolina will be heavily favored in both contests.

Telltale stretch: Starting in late October, South Carolina faces a three-game slog that could very well determine its chances of playing in the SEC championship game. The Gamecocks' rotating SEC West foe is Auburn -- on the road. That's some bad luck of the draw considering how hot the Tigers are. Coach Gus Malzahn, quarterback Nick Marshall and Co. are capable of embarrassing any defense. When South Carolina returns to Williams-Brice Stadium the following week it should have plenty of motivation to take care of Tennessee after last season's surprising last-second upset. The Gamecocks have a much-needed bye week before wrapping up their conference schedule against Florida in the Swamp, where they have one win in 11 games since the teams' home-and-home series began in 1992.

Final analysis: There's not much left on the bucket list for legendary coach Steve Spurrier. But even as his Gamecocks have gotten used to 11-win seasons, they still have just one SEC East crown to their credit, and that 2010 appearance in the SEC championship game was a forgettable shellacking. It appears the Gamecocks have just the right schedule to take the next step and win the program's first SEC title. Their toughest opponents -- Texas A&M, Georgia and Missouri -- are at home. If SC takes care of business in those games and doesn't slip up in its very winnable road games at Vanderbilt and Kentucky, it should have a solid lead in the SEC East race. Florida is a major wild card in 2014, but the Swamp might not be quite so intimidating if the Gators are out of contention by Nov. 15. The biggest problem with this schedule is that it's the first season of the College Football Playoff. South Carolina could go unbeaten against the SEC East, but a loss at Auburn and another in the SEC title game would likely force the selection committee to compare strength of schedule. SC could get a boost from its annual rivalry game against Clemson, but that's a double-edged sword. If the Tigers are good enough to help South Carolina's schedule strength, they would also be good enough to win the Palmetto Bowl for the first time since 2008.