What To Watch For: Vanderbilt

GamecockAnthem takes a weekly look at a few things to watch for in the upcoming game. This week's edition focuses on the Vanderbilt Commodores in the Thursday night season-opener.

South Carolina travels to Vanderbilt to open up the college football season on ESPN. The Gamecocks are hoping to extend their opening game winning streak to 13 games, which started back in 2000. A win Thursday night will also put Steve Spurrier at 22-1 all-time in season-openers as head coach.

Storylines are a plenty in this matchup between the SEC rivals. South Carolina returns All-America running back Marcus Lattimore from a severe knee injury suffered during the 2011 season. Connor Shaw is expected to take the next step at quarterback for the Gamecocks. Vanderbilt, meanwhile, is hoping to build on the improved first season under Coach James Franklin. Several starters return on offense and defense for the Commodores, which improved in nearly every statistical category last year.

Football season is officially here and it's time to take a look at some things to watch for in this upcoming matchup with Vanderbilt.

The return of Marcus Lattimore and his impact on the offense

The Gamecocks are a lethal team with Marcus Lattimore in the backfield. Time and time again, he has risen to the occasion and provided a much needed lift when the Gamecocks have called his number. His absence last year was thought to have a severe impact on the Gamecocks, but as it turns out it may have worked out for the best. South Carolina relied on a team approach the second half of the season without Lattimore and was a well-balanced offense the latter part of the year. Connor Shaw became the quarterback Steve Spurrier has been searching for during his time at USC and other players rose the occasion when they were needed most.

The return of Lattimore should have a big impact on this offense. The focus will be on the Gamecocks star running back every time he's in the lineup. His presence should help open up the passing game considering the Gamecocks approach with the spread option offense. Imagine being a defensive coordinator having to account for a mobile Connor Shaw and a power running back like Lattimore on nearly every play. The option play gives Shaw the ability to decide whether or not to keep it, hand it off to Lattimore, or step back to pass. The defense will have to play up near the line of scrimmage taking into account the running threats in the Gamecocks backfield. This can create open passing lanes for the receivers and potential one-on-one matchups.

Lattimore is considered to be 100% healthy for the game and can handle 25-30 carries according to Coach Spurrier. South Carolina won't be hesitant to throw Lattimore back in the mix and this should be the offensive output right away for the Gamecocks.

Vanderbilt's improved offense versus the South Carolina defense

The return of nine Vanderbilt starters on offense gives the Commodores hope for a great 2012 season. Senior quarterback Jordan Rodgers took over as the starter midway through the season and really got this offense off the ground. The scoring offense improved by 9.6 points in 2011 from 2010 as did the total offensive yardage of 57.5 yards per game. Rush offense was up for Vanderbilt as was the passing offense. The Commodores bring back All-SEC running back Zac Stacy, who ran for 1,193 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. Jordan Matthews and the top five receivers return as well. Improvement was all around for Vanderbilt last year. Generally, more experience means better output which is the hope for Vanderbilt in this game.

South Carolina's defense was one of the best in the country last season and returns several key players like D.J. Swearinger, Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney. However, the secondary has taken a hit with recent injuries and transfers that will put pressure on several younger backups to step up and produce. Vanderbilt's improved passing attack will likely have their eyes on moving the ball through the air and the Gamecocks need to be ready.

In order for the Gamecocks to be successful, they will need to create some pressure on Rodgers and force him into bad decisions. The speed rush combo of Clowney and Taylor will match up against Wesley Johnson and Andrew Bridges at the tackle positions for Vanderbilt. Both players weigh 285 pounds or less making them a bit undersized by SEC standards for tackles.

If those two can force pressure, it should help the secondary since Rodgers may not have time to make efficient passes. Swearinger, Devonte Holloman and Victor Hampton are capable veterans in the secondary but help up front could do wonders for the Gamecocks.

Gamecock freshman in key roles

South Carolina has several true freshman listed on the depth chart that could play vital roles as early as this Thursday. The two biggest names are wide receiver Shaq Roland and tight end Jerell Adams. Both players have shown a lot of athleticism and talent that gives this offense two top receiving threats for the Vanderbilt game.

Roland is known for his ability to go up for the ball and make a spectacular catch. He's done in scrimmages and practices so far this camp. He spoke on Monday night about being comfortable in the offense and he wants to be a deep-ball threat. Adams is another guy that is physically impressive and will be a hard matchup for most defenses. He's got the speed to outrun most defenders but also is tall at 6-foot-6 and weighing close to 230-pounds. His height could be crucial in red-zone situations and making the tough catch over the middle.

The defensive side of the ball will look to T.J. Gurley and Jordan Diggs to provide valuable time as backups. Gurley is in a crucial position at cornerback considering the losses suffered already this fall. He's been impressive in short work for South Carolina and secondary coach Grady Brown says it'll be hard to keep him off the field. Diggs has become the backup to Holloman at the SPUR position, a hybrid linebacker/safety position. He's also expected to be a big part of the special teams as well. He can play in run support but help out in pass coverage as well.

Adams and Roland could have the bigger splashes this Thursday considering their roles and what they bring to the table for the Gamecocks. You can't overlook Gurley and Diggs though especially Gurley. He's behind Jimmy Legree at cornerback who has had his struggles on the field at times during his career. Gurley could be called upon early and the Gamecocks will get to see what the young freshman can do this Thursday.

It's a big moment for these young players on national television in their first collegiate game. Expect them to come prepared to play key roles for South Carolina.

How will the Gamecocks handle the expectations of being the favorite?

South Carolina comes into this week's game ranked in the Top 10 preseason polls for the first time in school history. A lot of expectations are placed on this Gamecock squad from the national media to its own fans. There is a lot of returning talent from last year's team and people who are expected to take it to the next level. On the flip side, Vanderbilt is treating this game like their own personal Super Bowl. They would love nothing more to knock off a top-ranked team on their home field to open the season.

Being the favorite means wearing that target on your back and South Carolina has the right leadership in place to stay focused on the task at hand. This team knows they're good. They also know that things could slip out of control in a hurry. This is why they will be able to handle the expectations of the favorite in this football game.

The Gamecocks have been in tight situations before against a "lesser" opponent and won't overlook anyone. Vanderbilt is a formidable SEC opponent who has given the Gamecocks concerns over the last few years. They know they are primed for an upset which is why the focus will be there for South Carolina.

They won't listen to the media. They won't listen to the fans. They'll listen to themselves and know when its time, they'll be ready to play football.

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