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Vanderbilt’s September 22 game against South Carolina could define the season

Somehow, the Gamecocks have now won 9 in a row in the series.

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Michigan vs South Carolina Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Opponent: South Carolina Gamecocks. You can insert our nickname for them in the comments. (Heh, “insert.”)

Date: September 22. If I have to make a guess, “11 AM on the SEC Network” sounds right.

All-time series record: South Carolina leads, 23-4.

Last meeting: October 28 of last year in Columbia. South Carolina won, 34-27.

Last year’s record: 9-4, 60th in S&P+

Head coach: Will Muschamp (15-11, 3rd season)

Returning starters: 14 (8 offense/6 defense)

Somehow, South Carolina has won nine games in a row against Vanderbilt.

Those nine games have been decided by an average of 9.2 points — so it’s not like there have been many blowouts in that stretch. The scores of the last six games: 17-13 (2012), 35-25 (2013), 48-34 (2014), 19-10 (2015), 13-10 (2016), and 34-27 (2017.) The best Vanderbilt team of the last half-century lost to South Carolina; the worst South Carolina team of the last decade still beat Vanderbilt.

Somewhere in between the end of last season and this July, South Carolina has been deemed the second-best team in the East. That honestly says as much about the rest of the non-Georgia portion of the East as it does about the Gamecocks; while they ended last season with a 9-4 record and a comeback win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl, they also finished the season ranked 60th in S&P+. Bill C.’s early 2018 projections have the Gamecocks rising to 35th, which is only good for fourth in the East (with Missouri’s rating being inflated by last year’s offensive explosion and Florida projected to get a dead-cat bounce.)

The dirty secret of South Carolina’s success last season: they went 6-1 in games decided by one score or less. They beat NC State 35-28 in spite of getting doubled up in yardage; they beat Tennessee 15-9 on a day when Butch Jones couldn’t find the end zone to save his life.

I still think Will Muschamp’s first two seasons in Columbia have been a lot more smoke and mirrors than the preseason publicity suggests. The Gamecocks didn’t have much of a running game last year, averaging 4.0 yards per carry, but their top two rushers (A.J. Turner and TySon Williams) are back. So, too, are four of the top five receivers, including Deebo Samuel (who missed most of last season with an injury.) And junior quarterback Jake Bentley is back, too.

Who’s not back? Well, TE Hayden Hurst and a couple of starters on the offensive line — oh, and offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. Replacing Roper with Bryan McClendon is probably an improvement, though.

Six starters return for the Gamecocks on the defensive side of the ball, too. They lose three defensive backs and LB Skai Moore, but in total, just 13 lettermen are gone from last year’s team.

There’s your reason for optimism right there. On the other hand, if you view the Gamecocks as more like a 6-6 team (which, really, is about what they should have been) rather than an 8-4 team, you can also see why they might not take a huge jump.

How this game looks on Vanderbilt’s schedule depends on how the first three games go. If Vanderbilt is 3-0 going into this one (they won’t be, but bear with me for a minute), they’re playing with house money. 2-1, and this is the kind of game that could turn the season — either for good or bad (the Alabama game last year was definitely a turning point for the bad.) 1-2 or 0-3, and the South Carolina game becomes a last-ditch chance to salvage the season. If I were a betting man, I’d guess that Vanderbilt will be 2-1 heading into this one.

And this feels like much more of a tossup game than a lot of observers are giving it credit for: even if you’re not a complete Vanderbilt homer like yours truly, there are still a few reasons to be skeptical about South Carolina.