Schedule analysis: South Carolina

A closer look at the Gamecocks’ path to what they hope is a second straight trip to the SEC championship game in 2011:

Nonconference opponents (2010 records)

Sept. 3: East Carolina (6-7)

Sept. 17: Navy (9-4)

Nov. 19: The Citadel (3-8)

Nov. 26: Clemson (6-7)

SEC home games

Sept. 24: Vanderbilt

Oct. 1: Auburn

Oct. 8: Kentucky

Nov. 12: Florida

SEC road games

Sept. 10: at Georgia

Oct. 15: at Mississippi State

Oct. 29: at Tennessee

Nov. 5: at Arkansas

Gut-check time: It’s no coincidence that the loser of the Georgia-South Carolina game has never played in the SEC championship game. Simply, it’s a “must-win” for both teams if they plan on being in Atlanta. The Gamecocks won in Athens in 2006 and had a great chance to make it two in a row at Sanford Stadium in 2008. The Eastern Division figures to be wide open again in 2011, but history tells us that South Carolina can’t afford to lose its SEC opener that second week of the season and still play for the SEC championship on Dec. 3.

Trap game: Navy comes to Columbia the week after South Carolina’s trip to Georgia, and the Midshipmen run a version of the triple-option offense that gives any defense headaches. What’s more, Navy has already ruined South Carolina’s season once before. The Gamecocks were unbeaten and ranked No. 2 nationally in 1984 when they lost 38-21 to the Midshipmen in Annapolis in what remains the most crushing defeat in school history.

Snoozer: With the annual Clemson showdown looming the following week, The Citadel’s visit on Nov. 19 isn’t one they will be circling with garnet ink. In fact, you wonder if most of the South Carolina fans will even leave the Cockabooses outside Williams-Brice Stadium.

Telltale stretch: The race for the Eastern Division crown kicks into high gear in mid-October for the Gamecocks, who face three straight SEC road games. There is a bye between the visit to Mississippi State on Oct. 15 and the visit to Tennessee on Oct. 29, but it’s a three-game road swing that’s capped by a trip to Arkansas on Nov. 5. It doesn’t end there, either. South Carolina returns home the next week to face Florida.

Final analysis: The good news is that South Carolina avoids what should be the two best teams in the league next season -- Alabama and LSU. The bad news is that the Gamecocks are the only team in the league next season that has to play three consecutive true SEC road games. The caveat is that a bye week separates the Mississippi State and Tennessee trips. Nonetheless, it’s rare in this league that any team makes it through unscathed when it has to go on the road for three straight games. The opener with East Carolina will be played in Charlotte, N.C., so it won’t be a true home game, and then comes the pivotal trip to Georgia the next week. If the Gamecocks can win in Athens that second week of the season, they have a great chance to be 6-0 going into that critical three-game road trip. And if the East race comes down to the Florida game again this season, it only helps the Gamecocks that it’s in Columbia this time.