You can bet the Gamecocks had circled Saturday’s game with Vanderbilt as a must win affair – even before the Head Ball Coach walked away. Nobody wants a conference 0-fer, and especially not a team coming off seven consecutive bowl appearances. In fact, Coach Spurrier has been a head coach in the SEC for over twenty seasons – this was his first 0-4 start. The death spiral has been swift, but not entirely unexpected. It is hard to know how Spurrier’s abrupt retirement will affect a team desperate for a win – but the Gamecocks have to feel a bit rudderless.
Last week South Carolina had to abdicate its scheduled home game after the region was ravaged by flooding. The Gamecocks’ unexpected trip to LSU was a sobering affair that obviously gave Spurrier time to reflect on how much rebuilding was lying ahead of him. South Carolina put up a noble fight for a half, before being worn down and steamrolled by LSU. The physical toll of facing LSU’s punishing rushing attack cannot be underestimated. The Gamecocks were bound to feel a bit of a hangover here even before their Coach’s announcement – and it may be magnified facing a team coming off a bye.
Spurrier’s defense actually stopped Leonard Fournette and LSU for a half. This detail can be lost in LSU’s ultimate 624 yards of total offense. In the end two different LSU runners eclipsed 150 yards. More interestingly, South Carolina let LSU QB Brandon Harris have a career night, passing for a personal-best 228 yards. DC Andy Ludwig had to be watching. This is the same porous pass defense that let Georgia’s Grayson Lambert break an NCAA single game accuracy record. The way to beat South Carolina is through the air – the conundrum is, the way to lose to Carolina is to let the Gamecocks feast on interceptions.
On offense, South Carolina has under-achieved, but boasts several impressive weapons who show signs of coming untracked. Pharoh Cooper can catch, run and wildcat, but has suffered from being opponents’ first, second and third key. Brandon Wilds, a talented between-the-tackles runner, may return to action this week: he has been missed mightily. The Gamecocks have started three different QBs: Connor Mitch, the opening day signal-caller who was injured versus Kentucky, passer Perry Orth and dual threat (runner) Leonard Nunez. Of the three, the scrambling Nunez would be most likely to frustrate us. But Mitch is reportedly back at practice this week. Despite some chaos and inconsistency, there is talent on Carolina’s offense.
South Carolina’s special teams pose another significant threat. Rashad Fenton broke a 96-yard return for the Gamecocks against LSU. A Spurrier-coached team would have undoubtedly noted our vulnerabilities on special teams – and we (hopefully) worked to tighten them up during this bye week. This will be the type of game where a punt block or break-away return could make the difference. A Gamecock pick-six swung the game last year.
South Carolina’s two wins have come against UNC and UCF – the Gamecocks forced big turnovers in both games. OC Andy Ludwig will be tempted to throw early and often. But Johnny McCrary’s decision-making will need to be better than it was in Murfreesboro. Tosses into triple coverage will be picked by the opportunistic Gamecocks – and that will mean defeat. Vegas liked Carolina by 5½ - but that dipped to 3½ after Monday’s events. Moreover, Vegas has consistently underestimated us against major conference opponents – we are 4-0 against the spread. Look for a really tight one here. Vandy has won two of its last three and should be far more loose and confident than the shell-shocked Gamecocks. Moreover, the bye should let a lot of bruises heal. But winning on the road is nothing to take for granted. In fact, Coach Mason is still looking for his first SEC road win – and, here, it will be an emotional homecoming for Carolina following the terrible floods. Another haunting issue: Vandy also has not scored more than 17 points versus any defense other than Austin Peay’s. This week-end would be a good time to start. Pick: Vandy 26, South Carolina 24.
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Around the Conference, big games start Thursday and keep coming. The leading nominee for “most disappointing” team in the SEC, Auburn, travels to Lexington to face Kentucky for the national TV game on Thursday. Both teams come off a bye – which will allow Kentucky to get the taste of its Eastern Kentucky performance out of its mouth. The Wildcats’ upcoming calendar looks like Auburn, @ MSU, UT, @ Georgia. Even in the shadow of this daunting schedule, the visit from Gus Malzahn’s crew is a chance to put Kentucky football “in the conversation” at 5-1. And Thursday night home teams have tended to fare well. The difference here is that Auburn needs a good showing on national TV more than any team in America. Many pundits pegged Auburn as a play-off team – and a loss here may translate to a losing season: @ Arkansas, Ole Miss, @ A&M, Georgia and Bama remain. Already left for dead at 3-2, and working off a week to regroup, if Auburn is ever going to play at a high level in 2015, it should be this week. Pick: Auburn 35, UK 31.
At some point, you are not paranoid if you think the schedule-maker is out to get you when your team faces a squad coming off a bye three games in a row. This gauntlet begins for Bama next Saturday in College Station. The Tide is not only coming off a physical game with Arkansas – but is probably wishing Kevin Sumlin’s team would catch collective amnesia. The 59-0 massacre Bama inflicted on A&M last year (it was 45-0 at half and A&M was nationally ranked at the time) has likely been on Sumlin’s mind these last two weeks (and maybe all summer.) The Tide has looked very mortal this year. Vegas has installed Bama as a 4½ point road favorite. Frankly, the Tide will have to play a lot better than it did last week to win this game – but I will chalk up the Arkansas game to a minor let-down after the trip to Athens. It is easy to forget that A&M is the unbeaten team in this game. The Aggies have already toppled Arkansas, MSU and Arizona State. Pick: Bama 30, A&M 24.
The biggest game of the week is in Baton Rouge where Florida visits for a battle of unbeatens. The Gators narrowly subdued ECU, eked out wins versus UK and UT – and now suddenly “believe” and look like a national power. Just when the Gators were hitting on all cylinders, qb Will Grier got suspended by the NCAA. This is a major speed bump for an offense that was starting to establish itself (although back up Treon Harris carved us up last year.) Florida’s defense remains the heart of this team: this week, however, it faces the best offense it has seen by a wide margin. LSU’s running game will be tested by Florida’s front seven. LSU QB Brandon Harris could be the key here – Florida will need him to make mistakes if the Gators hope to pull off the upset, assuming the Gators can bait Les Miles into throwing the ball. Vegas likes LSU by 6½. Pick: LSU 28, Florida 17.
Georgia hosts Missouri as the reality of its situation sinks in. The Bulldogs blew a 24-3 lead in Knoxville by sleepwalking at the end of the first half, lost Nick Chubb, and lost their grip on the SEC East all in one afternoon. Missouri is struggling on offense; the Tigers defense can play with anyone. Especially when that anyone is running a fairly conservative scheme. Pick: Georgia 27, Mizzou 13.
The Mississippi squads both play tricky out-of-conference games. MSU should be able to subdue Louisiana Tech, but this is not a cupcake. After failing to cover versus Troy, MSU is a two touchdown favorite over the 4-2 Techsters (both teams are Bulldogs) who have won three in a row. This game, which is an early start, comes with a warning flare; but MSU continues to look solid. Pick: MSU 41, La Tech 27. Ole Miss, meanwhile, takes its scoring show on the road to face undefeated Memphis. The Rebs are favored by 9½ in a game that has “take the over” written all over it. Memphis Coach Justin Fuente has performed a minor miracle for the Tigers. But Ole Miss should bring the home team down to Earth. Pick: Ole Miss 63, Memphis 35.
Vandy will arrive in Columbia with a chance to reach .500. Our offense still has not scored a first half touchdown versus anyone but Austin Peay. We are coming to expect good defensive performances from Coach Mason’s squad. We will need four good quarters from the offense and special teams if we hope to capture this much-needed SEC road win.