Entering the 2010 season, anyone that follows the SEC - and the Eastern division particularly - would tell you that the SEC East was not going to be as difficult as it has been in the past. Your traditional East powers - Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee - were all going to facing adversity. Florida had to replace all-everything quarterback Tim Tebow, the entire defense, and defensive coordinator Charlie Strong. Georgia was replacing starting quarterback Joe Cox and was also replacing their defensive coordinator, Willie Martinez. Tennessee was replacing head coach Lane Kiffen with Derek Dooley. Throw in the fact that Kentucky was replacing head coach Rich Brooks with Joker Phillips, and Vanderbilt was replacing head coach Bobby Johnson with Robbie Caldwell and you quickly realize that the East was completely up for grabs.
"Georgia started off down a bit but now they're coming back," South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said Tuesday afternoon at his weekly press conference. "Florida is down a bit. Tennessee is down a bit from where they usually are."
Halfway through the season, no one thought the East would be this far down. The Gators sit at 2-3 in the SEC after losing three straight to Alabama, LSU, and Mississippi State. The Bulldogs are also 2-3 after losing their first three conference games to South Carolina, Arkansas, and Mississippi State. The Dawgs have rebounded the last two games by beating Tennessee and Vanderbilt.
"Yeah, Georgia played very well, ran the ball, threw the ball," Spurrier said. "They looked like the best team in the SEC probably last week and the week before against Tennessee. They got their act together. They are still in the hunt in the East."
Vanderbilt sits at 1-2 in the conference after the loss to Georgia. Kentucky sits at 1-3 after their upset over the Gamecocks, and Tennessee sits at 0-3 after taking last week off.
"Heck, everybody is in the hunt," Spurrier said. "Vanderbilt is still in the hunt. I think in the conference they are 1-2. That Eastern side, Tennessee is a little bit in a hole I guess at 0-3, but anyway most of us have just played four games, a few have played five. It's pretty much wide open."
Then there's the Gamecocks. Many said this was the best year that South Carolina had of winning the SEC East since joining the conference in 1992. The Gamecocks returned the vast majority of their starters and added arguably the best running back in the 2010 class in Marcus Lattimore. After dropping one on the road at Auburn, the Gamecocks returned home and shocked the country with a victory over then-#1 Alabama to take the lead in the East. With Florida's loss to Mississippi State Saturday night, the Gamecocks had a chance to take a commanding lead in the East with a win over Kentucky. That didn't happen and now the road is wider than ever in the East. No one has more than three losses and none have less than two losses.
"We have a chance to really do some good here," Spurrier said. "But last week put us into the wad with everybody. But we still have a good chance. We have a good chance if we can play. But if we play the way we've been playing sometimes, it will be difficult for us."
Only four times has the winner of the SEC East lost two conference games (UF ‘92, UGA ‘03, UGA ‘05, UT ‘07) and never has a team lost three or more conference games. If that streak is to continue in 2010 it will be South Carolina or Vanderbilt.
"We understand and realize we are in the hunt for the Eastern Division, but we can't continue playing the way we've been playing and expect any chance to win it," Spurrier said. "So, this is a crucial week to see if we can tighten up our pass defense and special teams. Special teams have been consistent, we just haven't had any real big plays yet this year. But anyway, looking forward to the ball game and hopefully we can come back a winner."
As of right now, it appears that the 2010 SEC East representative in the conference championship game in Atlanta on December 4th will have more losses than any other Eastern division champion. In 2010 the East has been anything but a beast.
SEC East Standings (Remaining SEC opponents)
South Carolina - 2-2 (Vandy, UT, Arkansas, UF)
Florida - 2-3 (Georgia, Vandy, South Carolina)
Georgia - 2-3 (UK, UF, Auburn)
Vanderbilt - 1-2 (South Carolina, Arkansas, Florida, UK, UT)
Kentucky - 1-3 (UGA, MSU, Vanderbilt, UT)
Tennessee - 0-3 (Bama, South Carolina, Ole Miss, Vandy, UK)
Kenny Will Play, but Marcus not ruled out
One of the many questions following the Kentucky game was where was Kenny Miles at? After Marcus Lattimore was injured with a sprained ankle on the second play of the second half, Miles was left sitting on the sideline. When the Gamecocks take on Vanderbilt Saturday night, expect to see #31 on the field.
"Coach Graham and I talked, and I said, 'Let's give Kenny a chance,'" Spurrier said. "Kenny is fired up. He's ready to play. He's had a wonderful attitude all through this first six games, and he deserves to play. I think he may have had 100 yards in this game last year. Yeah, we've got to run Kenny this week and hopefully we can make some holes for him."
Spurrier said Sunday afternoon that Lattimore would likely be out for the Vanderbilt game. On Tuesday, he retracted that comment a bit.
"I wouldn't say he's definitely out," Spurrier said. "He can walk right now. He may make a nice recovery between now and then. We'll see how he's running around Thursday or Friday."
To say that the Gamecock offense struggled with Lattimore out of the game is a vast understatement. The Gamecocks rushed for -6 yards in the second half after Lattimore went down.
"Marcus, the runs he had going last week were something," Spurrier said. "He broke two or three tackles on just about every one of them. We didn't have any gaping holes there where he just had to run. But, anyway, the line blocked well at times. They had a lot of missed assignments and errors too. They had a lot. I don't have the answers for it. As coaches, we can't get the players to play their assignments very well. We'll take the blame."
Spurrier refused to blame the collapse on Lattimore's injury, but rather spread it around on the offense, defense and special teams.
"In the second half we let Kentucky get back in it with the long drive, a 95-yard drive, and then it was an 11-point game," Spurrier said. "It seems like we were backed up, having penalties, dropped snaps, offensive interference penalty that was very questionable. Anyway, some stuff started happening and we didn't go very far. We had a big sack. I think it was the only sack of the game. That's the way it happened."
The Gamecocks will have a chance to get some of the running game corrected against the Commodores. Vanderbilt is currently ranked last in the conference in rushing yard defense, giving up 192 yards per game. However, Kentucky's run defense was ranked 12th last week and giving up almost identical yardage, but the Gamecocks barely broke the 100-yard mark.
"Vandy is very similar to most years," Spurrier said. I guess their big win was against Ole Miss, and regardless of whatever their record is, we always have a tough time with Vandy the last three or four years. Very fortunate to beat them last year 14-10, and, uh, the year before that they actually beat us in Nashville, so we are expecting a very tough down to the wire game."
Moving On/Defensive Woes
Spurrier showed a bit of his musical preference during his press conference to relate to what the team must do after Saturday's loss.
"We are trying to move on from last week," Spurrier said. "I heard a Rascal Flatts song on the radio coming in today, ‘(I'm) Moving On' and that's what we've got to do. We've got to
move on, but we have to correct a lot of things we are doing wrong around here.
One of the biggest issues that continues to pop up week after week is the lack of a pass defense.
"We've got a problem here at South Carolina football right now," Spurrier said. "It's called pass defense. We're not playing our assignments, and if the guys are confused, we have to coach better. We appear confused way too often now. We are going to try to simplify some things. We're going to try to put our guys in position where they can't screw up, and hopefully that'll help us as we go down the stretch here."
Confused seems to be putting it mildly. The Gamecocks rank dead last in the SEC in pass defense this season, giving up 271 yards per game. Missed assignments and discipline have been the two key words the coaches have been using when talking about the lack of pass defense.
"I would say discipline is a problem and I would say if they're confused on our scheme thing, we need to straighten that out," Spurrier said. "We've had some careless play that hopefully we can correct. Hopefully, our guys want to correct them. We make a lot of errors. We'll keep trying though and see how badly our guys want to play their assignments. But it's a problem. We have a lot of good players, but for some reason we can't teach them to be mentally tough at times."
Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said that the secondary will try and play more ‘man' coverage instead of zone. Ward even said that he prefers ‘man' coverage over zone. So why has it taken half the season to finally make that adjustment?
"That's a good question," Spurrier said. "We hope to (play more ‘man'). We hope to do it more. Again, we should be using a little bit more press man. A lot of times, third-and-13s,
third-and-14s, is not really the time for that, but the third-and-twos and threes, we should be using more man. We are going to try to do it in the future."
Special Teams Musical Chairs
The Gamecocks played a little musical chairs against the Wildcats. D.J. Swearinger collected his first three career kickoff returns, averaging 20.7 yards. Bryce Sherman also had 3 returns for an average of 25 yards.
"I think Sherm, Bryce Sherman, is going to go back and be our kickoff return guy," Spurrier said. "He always makes a few yards and hits whatever is there for us."
The punt return team struggled to say the least against the Wildcats. Stephon Gilmore fumbled twice, losing one, and only averaged 1.6 yards on 5 returns. Gilmore will still be back to return the punts, but some other guys on the punt return team got their pink slips.
"Stephon, that is the first time he has dropped one since he's been here so we are not going
to fire him yet," Spurrier said. "Our hold-up guys, we fired the hold-up guys. We'll have some different hold-up guys. We just can't watch them run around us the way we have been doing it. We will have some different guys try to hold up to give our return guys a chance."
Vanderbilt uses the Lou Holtz-style punt so Ace Sanders will be back there with Gilmore returning punts.
"Their punter kicks it sometimes with that rugby style and this, that and the other," Spurrier said. "So there is a chance that we may have one or two guys back there and Ace Sanders will be the other guy to go back there."
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