I’ll be honest. When I turned the page to the 2018 schedule and saw that Georgia-South Carolina was a Week 2 matchup, a thought crept into the back of my mind. It felt wrong, but I couldn’t help but go there.

“There’s a strong chance that Deebo Samuel won’t be injured yet for that Georgia game, which would be awesome.”

I know. Why use “yet” like it’s some inevitable thing that Samuel will go down?

Well, South Carolina fans are all too familiar with Samuel’s injury history.

As a redshirt freshman in 2015, he suffered a hamstring injury in the season opener, which ultimately limited him to 5 games. As a sophomore in 2016, Samuel had his best season with 59 catches for 783 yards … but he suffered a hamstring injury in Week 2 against Mississippi State that sidelined him for a month. And as a junior in 2017, Samuel broke his leg in Week 3 against Kentucky, which ended his season.

In other words, brace yourselves for Week 4 against Vanderbilt this year.

OK, I’m not trying to make light of Samuel’s often-frustrating string of bad injury luck. But it is worth noting that ahead of South Carolina’s biggest game of 2018, it will indeed have its best weapon. For a program that’s looking to take the next step and earn its first real marquee win of the Will Muschamp era, it needs Samuel at 100 percent and then some.

Credit: Brian Westerholt-USA TODAY Sports

So here’s a strange thought. Samuel has essentially faced 2 elite SEC defenses in his career. For a fifth-year player of his caliber, that’s baffling.

In 2016, both Florida and Georgia were top-20 defenses in terms of total yards. In those games, Samuel averaged 4 catches for 72 yards and he had a combined 3 rushes for 9 yards and a score.

But with a more mature Jake Bentley operating in Bryan McClendon’s new offense, Saturday will be a completely different matchup for Samuel. He’ll have more help on the perimeter with Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith. The tempo will help against a defense that has athletes like Georgia. We saw that last year when Mizzou threw the ball all over the field in the first half at Sanford Stadium.

I’d be stunned of McLendon didn’t have Samuel try and take the top off the Georgia secondary early and often. At the very least, it’ll allow for some room for Bentley to operate in the underneath passing game, which he seemed to favor in the opener. McClendon is going to want to get the ball out of Bentley’s hands quickly and he’d prefer to test those relatively inexperienced Georgia linebackers in coverage.

This will be an interesting test for Georgia in its first real game without Roquan Smith. Samuel makes a defense cover the entire field, whether that’s as a receiver or as a runner. If the Dawgs don’t have someone who covers ground like Smith, Samuel could be the difference-maker that South Carolina needs.

And, you know, catches like this are always good:

It would have been interesting to see how Samuel would have fared in the Georgia matchup last year. The Gamecocks were desperate for someone who could either make a big play in special teams or in the passing game.

That’s really what South Carolina has been lacking during its rise in the Muschamp era. Two of those 15 wins came against teams that finished ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. As a result, South Carolina will head into Saturday with its first Top 25 ranking since Sept. 2014. Fittingly, that was the last time the Gamecocks beat Georgia.

A healthy Samuel is South Carolina’s only chance to end that skid. That wasn’t enough back in 2016 when Georgia came to Columbia. Samuel can still picture what it was like that afternoon.

“I remember how loud it was and the ground was shaking,” Samuel said Tuesday. “That’s how I knew Georgia was a rivalry for us.”

That was when South Carolina was a 2-2 team in the first year of the Muschamp era, and Georgia was a 3-2 team in the first year of the Kirby Smart era. Needless to say, things are different now.

The same is true for Samuel. He’s no longer the redshirt sophomore who was just trying to prove himself to the new coaching staff. He’s a preseason All-American who’s as exciting of a player as there is in college football…when healthy.

Saturday would be an ideal time for him to be both of those things.