Schedule analysis: Missouri

Gary Pinkel and Missouri start the SEC season with a tough test at South Caolina. Don McPeak/USA TODAY Sports

Nonconference opponents (with 2013 record)

Aug. 30: South Dakota State (9-5)

Sept. 6: at Toledo (7-5)

Sept. 13: Central Florida (12-1)

Sept. 20: Indiana (5-7)

SEC home games

Oct. 11: Georgia (8-5)

Oct. 25: Vanderbilt (9-4)

Nov. 1: Kentucky (2-10)

Nov. 28: Arkansas (3-9)

SEC road games

Sept. 27: at South Carolina (11-2)

Oct. 18: at Florida (4-8)

Nov. 15: at Texas A&M (9-4)

Nov. 22: at Tennessee (5-7)

Gut-check time: Once Missouri enters SEC play, it jumps in with both feet. The Tigers start with a Sept. 27 trip to South Carolina, which has won 11 games in three straight seasons and will rank among the leading contenders to win the SEC East this fall. The Gamecocks have won 18 in a row at home since Auburn won at Williams-Brice Stadium in October 2011, so history will not be on the Tigers’ side -- particularly since they’re 0-2 against the Gamecocks since joining the SEC and suffered their only regular-season loss at home to the Gamecocks last year.

Trap game: It’s funny to call a Missouri trip to Florida a “trap game” considering the wildly different spots the two programs occupied in the national hierarchy over the last 25 years or so. But Missouri is unquestionably in the stronger position right now, having rolled over the Gators and to its first SEC East championship last year. Nonetheless, a trip to Florida remains as a daunting challenge for Missouri, particularly considering how much offensive firepower the Tigers lost from last season. Will Muschamp’s Gators will almost certainly rebound this season -- there’s too much talent on the roster to expect otherwise -- and the Tigers will have to be on their game to beat them for a second straight season.

Snoozer: Like last season, Missouri opens the season with four straight nonconference games. Unlike last year, one of those games -- the Sept. 13 visit from Central Florida -- comes against an opponent that played in a BCS bowl last season. The Knights will be without their two offensive stars from last season (quarterback Blake Bortles and tailback Storm Johnson), so even they will be in reloading mode when they visit Columbia. That’s the only game in the first month that should provide any intrigue whatsoever for Missouri fans, as FCS opponent South Dakota State and Toledo and Indiana should fail to mount much of a challenge.

Telltale stretch: Expand the “gut-check time” section even further. After the Tigers open SEC play with an enormous challenge at South Carolina, they take a week off following the South Carolina game, then the Tigers will host Georgia. The Bulldogs also will rank among the leading preseason favorites within the SEC East. Then comes the trip to Florida. That means in three consecutive games, the Tigers will face teams that won the division in seven of the previous eight years before Mizzou’s Eastern Division title last year. Making the challenge of this stretch even more difficult, Vanderbilt comes to town after the Florida game. The Commodores lost coach James Franklin to Penn State, but they have won nine games in consecutive seasons.

Final analysis: Missouri isn’t going to sneak up on anyone like it did last season, not that it will have much of an opportunity. The first month of the season should provide a 3-1, or maybe even 4-0, record, but the SEC slate gets tough quickly. The Tigers lost a ton of key offensive skill players, plus defensive stars Michael Sam, Kony Ealy and E.J. Gaines, so September will be a key time for Mizzou to begin generating some positive momentum with new talent. The Tigers will need to be clicking to knock off South Carolina on the road, much less Georgia, Florida and Vandy in the weeks afterward. And even after that, they still have to make trips to Texas A&M and Tennessee -- to stadiums that rank among the nation’s most hostile toward visitors -- in back-to-back weeks in November. Gary Pinkel did a phenomenal job in assembling a 2013 team that surprised longtime SEC fans by making it to Atlanta, but it will require all of his coaching acumen to navigate this schedule successfully and make it back there again in 2014 considering how many pieces the Tigers must replace.