Roundtable: USC - Vanderbilt preview

In the third edition of's hit, new "Roundtable" feature, Anthem's football writer trio of Jonathan Jolley, Wes Mitchell, and Christopher Wellbaum preview South Carolina's SEC opener against the Vanderbilt Commodores by sharing their insights and opinions on five burning questions surrounding Thursday night's matchup.

The defensive performance against NC State was an encouraging start for Ellis Johnson's unit, but how will the Gamecock defense fare against Vanderbilt's dual-threat quarterback Chris Nickson this week?

Jonathan Jolley: Chris Nickson and the Vanderbilt offense will present a tougher challenge for the Gamecocks than what they saw last Thursday from the injury riddled and one dimensional NC State offense. Nickson, who was named the SEC Offensive Player of the Week for his performance against Miami (OH) in the Commodores' season opener, is an experienced and savvy quarterback that's capable of hurting defenses with his athleticism and doing just enough through the air to keep them honest.

While the 2007 Gamecock defense struggled throughout the season to contain dual-threat quarterbacks, the '08 defense is faster, more athletic, and more experienced than a year ago. Nickson will be a quality test for Ellis Johnson's new 4-2-5 scheme, and the USC defenders must play solid assignment football and tackle well in order to contain him. With that said, I expect the Gamecocks to put a lot of defenders in the box and dare Nickson to beat them through the air. That should limit Nickson's productivity on the ground and take him out of his comfort zone by making him primarily a pocket passer.

Eric Norwood and the Gamecock defense will look to limit Vanderbilt quarterback Chris Nickson's success on the ground.
Wes Mitchell: Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson said following Wednesday's practice that he had to do some coaching on the fly Thursday as the Gamecocks didn't know exactly what to expect from a Tom O'Brien offense that has been more traditional in the past. Johnson was able to prepare fully this time and should have an idea what to expect from the Commodore offense. While the true test of whether the Gamecock defense can contain a running quarterback will come later in the season, Chris Nickson is no slouch and is actually leading the SEC in rushing with 166 yards after an impressive opening night performance against Miami (OH).

As good as Nickson is, he does not have the supporting cast of players around him the Gamecocks will face in a Tim Tebow later in the year. This will allow the defense to focus on containing Nickson and the running game in general in an effort to force Vandy to beat them with its passing game. With Jasper Brinkley and Eric Norwood patrolling the middle, and Darian Stewart and Emanuel Cook all over the field, we will finally see the defense contain a running QB this time around. Johnson is an experienced coordinator who has seen it all, and will put the Gamecocks in the right places to make plays. Nickson may break a few nice runs, but in the end the defensive coaches will feel pretty good about their defense's effort.

Christopher Wellbaum: This is the big question. The Gamecocks struggle to stop running quarterbacks, and this is Johnson's first big test. NC State quarterback Russell Wilson only rushed 4 times for 7 yards before leaving the game with an injury, but he was starting to find creases in the defense. Nickson is not only more athletic, but also more experienced than Wilson.

Johnson felt he did not have enough time to prepare for Wilson, but he has had a full week to get ready for Vanderbilt. If he can draw up a game plan that stops Nickson, he will be earning his money, and prove he is an upgrade over Tyrone Nix. You never want to see a player get hurt the way Wilson was, but his injury speaks to a key factor: Johnson had the Gamecocks running an attacking, hard-hitting defense. If Johnson comes through, and they can continue to attack, rather than react, and land a few hard hits on Nickson, he will start to slow down a little.

The offensive line clearly struggled for much of the game against NC State, but they appeared to play with more continuity in the fourth quarter when the offense engineered three touchdown drives. Was the late game success a fluke, or can the offensive line build on that and play well against an attacking Vanderbilt defense?

Jonathan Jolley: The line play in the first half of the NC State game was very disappointing, but as we saw around the country on opening weekend, most offensive lines have some kinks to work out in the first game. The good news is the line did seem to come together in the second half against the Wolfpack, and while I believe part of USC's late game success was a result of the Gamecocks wearing down NC State's defensive front, there's still something to be said for the offensive line showing more continuity and playing better assignment football. The strong play of Jarriel King off the bench at left tackle certainly helped that cause, and the line's performance in the second half of the opener is something they can build on heading into week two against an aggressive Vanderbilt defense that is expected to throw multiple different blitz looks at the Gamecock offense.

It's commonly said that an offensive line - and a football team in general - makes its most progress from week one to week two because they can dissect real game film and pinpoint the areas to improve. With that in mind, I expect the USC offensive line to play better against the Commodores and have fewer mental mistakes such as penalties and missed assignments. Of course, Spurrier threatening to bench any lineman that jumps offsides may have something to do with that as well. Ultimately, this line has the size, talent, and experience to be a solid unit if they can cut down on the mental mistakes. The game against Vanderbilt would be a good time to live up to that potential and build some more chemistry with Georgia on the horizon.

Senior right tackle Justin Sorenson and the USC offensive line struggled mightily against Vanderbilt last fall. They're hoping for a much stronger showing on Thursday night.
Wes Mitchell: The thought of seven sacks and five false starts must still be floating around in the heads of the Gamecock linemen who were involved with last year's debacle. The linemen will have to use those heads Thursday as Vanderbilt's zone blitz scheme is predicated on making opposing linemen pick the right guy to block. I don't believe the late-game success was a fluke, but don't expect the line to just pick up right where it left off either. South Carolina has the size and talent to be a good line now, but it may be a slow process. Jarriel King has NFL-type potential at left tackle and once you add Jamon Meredith back to the mix next week I believe you have a very SEC-quality o-line. The unit will still have some growing pains tonight and Spurrier will probably have to pull someone for not staying onsides, but the line should look nothing like the unit that took on Vandy last year.

Christopher Wellbaum: The other question might be: How many linemen will Spurrier pull for getting a false start? A big key to the late-game improvement last week was left tackle Jarriel King. King replaced Hutch Eckerson in the second quarter, though it took King a while to settle down. Once he did, the offensive line began playing much better. It also helped that the line was able to wear down NC State, and by the end of the game, the Wolfpack were physically and mentally defeated.

For that reason, it is hard to get a good feel for how the offensive line will do. On one hand, you have a key new player plus game experience suggesting the line will open running lanes and provide time for Smelley to find his receivers, all of which happened late in the NC State game. On the other hand, you cannot overlook the fact that by the end of the game NC State simply was not challenging the line anymore. However, it is hard not to believe that the game experience King and new center Garrett Anderson now have at their new positions will pay off this week.

After Chris Smelley's impressive showing off the bench against NC State, how will he respond as the starting quarterback against the Commodores?

Jonathan Jolley: I am of the belief that if Chris Smelley has time to operate in the pocket, he's a very capable quarterback that can run Spurrier's offense effectively. It all starts with the offensive line though, as Smelley's been prone to make mistakes in the past when under pressure. When Smelley came in off the bench and led three consecutive scoring drives in the fourth quarter against NC State, he was the beneficiary of solid offensive line play and looked very comfortable.

Vanderbilt's not stupid though. They have scouted the Gamecocks, and they saw Smelley first hand last fall. The Commodores will undoubtedly bring a lot of pressure and apply different blitz schemes to try and take Smelley out of his comfort zone and potentially force some mistakes. The offensive line can only do so much when blocking a blitzing defense, so Smelley will need to make quick, smart decisions in the pocket and get the ball out on time. If he's able to do that, the Gamecock offense should have a productive night.

Ultimately, I don't expect Smelley to have a perfect outing against the Commodores. But I do believe he will manage the offense well and will get the ball in the hands of USC's playmakers. The experience Smelley gained and the growing pains he learned from last year when he went 4-2 as a starter should pay major dividends in a game like this, assuming the offensive line provides decent protection.

Chris Smelley's decision making will be a key to USC's offensive success against the Commodores.
Wes Mitchell: Smelley is to be commended for keeping his head held high and continuing to work hard after hearing how Tommy Beecher was Spurrier's guy all summer. After an awful spring game and first practice of the fall, Smelley has rebounded with a solid fall camp and a near-perfect showing against N.C. State. Can Smelley be perfect again? Obviously, that's not likely, but it is likely that the redshirt sophomore QB will show a command for the offense and lead the offense down the field. The key will be for him to play within the offense and not force things. Spurrier will likely spread the field and attack the Commodores with a quick, (hopefully) precise passing attack. Smelley had his ups and downs last season, but has improved overall as a passer and that improvement should show. I expect a 16-for-26 type evening with a touchdown or two and maybe a pick.

Christopher Wellbaum: It seems to be the rule of thumb since Spurrier came to Columbia: the starter struggles until he gets benched, due to poor play, arrest, or injury. The backup plays better during the middle of the season, but by the end, the starter is back in charge and lights things up. Based on this rubric, Smelley should play about like he did last year. He will put together a few nice drives, toss a touchdown or two, and throw into triple coverage at least twice.

Ignoring the rubric and looking at what Smelley did in the spring and summer combined with his play last week, we should probably expect about the same thing. Again, when Smelley came in against NC State, he was playing against a defeated team (on the pass to Dion LeCorn, it appeared the defenders were covering the water cooler on the sideline), so it is unrealistic to expect him to light it up against Vanderbilt. However, Smelley showed improved decision making in the spring, except for the Spring Game, and continued to show improvement during camp. Spurrier praised Smelley's work ethic and leadership all summer, as well. So perhaps a reasonable expectation would be for Smelley to lead a few scoring drives, toss a couple touchdowns, and maybe only throw into triple coverage once.

How will last season's loss to Vanderbilt affect the Gamecock team that takes the field in Nashville on Thursday?

Jonathan Jolley: Last season's loss to Vanderbilt is still fresh on the minds of the USC players and coaches. While the Gamecocks would never admit that they overlooked the Commodores a year ago, they certainly didn't bring their "A" game in that contest. Don't expect history to repeat itself this year. Vanderbilt has the Gamecocks' full attention, and the South Carolina players and coaches are excited to have another crack at the 'Dores to get that monkey off their back from last season's embarrassing loss.

Senior wide receiver Kenny McKinley and the Gamecocks haven't forgotten last season's disappointing loss to Vanderbilt.
Wes Mitchell: As much as I'm sure the team would love to avenge the loss to Vanderbilt that they believe derailed their entire 2007 season, once the whistle blows the most important thing for them to do is to forget about it! Football games are won by blockin' and tacklin' as Spurrier would say, and just wanting to beat a team will only get you so far.

The first few minutes could set the tone for the entire game as this is truly the type game that could go either way. The Gamecocks have not gotten off to a good start in a game since they played UNC last year, and if that trend continues it could become a nightmarish trip to Nashville for the Gamecocks. Early turnovers set the tone last year, and the points off those turnovers were all the ‘Dores needed as South Carolina chased those points rather than sticking to their game plan. South Carolina is very capable of winning this game convincingly, but will need to come out and impose their will on the Commodores early to have any chance of that happening.

Christopher Wellbaum: The sting from last season's loss is still there, and while they won't admit it, coaches have been reminding the team about that loss all week. Nobody will say it is a revenge game, but the body language and a little reading between the lines suggests it is. The Gamecocks are determined to redeem themselves for last year, and the fact that it is the conference opener has only added to the sense of urgency. A win over Vanderbilt would mean more than the win over NC State, both emotionally and in terms of national respect, which should lead to a very focused team taking the field.

What's your prediction for the game?

Jonathan Jolley: Vanderbilt is a well coached, hard nosed football team that has grown increasingly competitive over the last few years under the direction of head coach Bobby Johnson. The Gamecocks are clearly still the deeper, more talented, and more experienced team, but they will need to play well in order to leave Nashville with a "W." With the memory of last season's upset loss to the Commodores still fresh on their minds, I expect the Gamecocks to do just that.

It may be too much to ask for this team to play a perfect game in week two with questions still lingering at quarterback, on the offensive line, and with the defense's previous struggles against dual-threat quarterbacks. Thus, I believe the Gamecocks will play a solid but not mistake-free game and will pull away from the feisty Commodores in the fourth quarter.

Prediction: South Carolina 27 - Vanderbilt 17

Steve Spurrier owns a 14-1 career record against Vanderbilt, with the lone loss coming last season.
Wes Mitchell: As I said earlier, this is a game that could go either way and I believe the beginning of the game will set the tone. I doubt he would ever admit it, but I guarantee Steve Spurrier has had this game circled ever since last year when he coached what he would call his worst game ever.

Vanderbilt is a solid team that Bobby Johnson has built the right way from the ground up. They are a team that doesn't have the athletes the other teams in the SEC do, but force their opponent to make mistakes and then make them pay when they do.

With that said, the Commodores may give South Carolina some trouble, especially if they turn the ball over, but in the end the Gamecocks win, 31-14.

Christopher Wellbaum: The fans seem to be taking this game lightly. Big mistake. Remember the last time Carolina took Vanderbilt lightly? The Commodores controlled the Gamecocks and won 17-6 in a game where Carolina never really threatened. The Gamecocks had about as uninspiring 34-0 win as is possible against NC State (although it certainly feels better to score 34 points than to give up 34 points), and believe it or not, Vanderbilt is a much better team than the Wolfpack.

Fortunately, the players are not taking this game for granted. NC State, especially after losing its starting quarterback, is simply not a very good football team, and the coaches have drilled that point home to keep the players from getting complacent. The Gamecocks did not play especially well in the opener, but they still won easily, and have some confidence entering the game. Nickson will make some plays for the Commodores, and make Gamecock fans hold their breath a few times, but Carolina should win comfortably.

South Carolina 24 - Vanderbilt 10

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