VANDERBILT PASSING OFFENSE VS. SOUTH CAROLINA PASSING DEFENSE
Last season Vanderbilt struggled in the passing department, finishing 13th in the SEC while gaining just 172 yards per game. Vandy quarterbacks also threw 16 interceptions compared to just 11 touchdowns. Kyle Shurmur will start the season behind center on Thursday night. He is a solid passer who helped lead Vandy to wins over Kentucky and Missouri while passing for just over 500 yards for five TDs and just three interceptions. He does need to improve his pass completion percentage (42.7%) but that should come with another spring practice and preseason camp under his belt. Receivers like C.J. Duncan, Trent Sherfield and others will also help Shurmur with his number of completions. Vandy lost veteran Andrew Jelks on the offensive line but Will Holden, Delando Crooks, Barrett Gouger, Bruno Reagan and Justin Skule all have solid ability to block.
The Gamecocks had a pretty solid passing defense in 2015 finishing ninth in the SEC while allowing 212 yards per game with 15 TDs with 12 interceptions. Safety Jordan Diggs and cornerback Rico McWilliams are the only returning starters in the Gamecock secondary but those two are pretty good with a combined 37 career starts between the two. Defensive end Marquavius Lewis had a sack and two quarterback hurries in the 19-10 win over Vandy last year in Columbia.
VANDERBILT RUSHING OFFENSE VS. SOUTH CAROLINA RUSHING DEFENSE
Vanderbilt finished tied for 10th in the SEC in rushing in 2015, gaining just under 155 yards per game. Vandy, however, was next to last in rushing TDs scored (9) and 12th in yards per carry (3.75). Commodore running back Ralph Webb is on pace to break many of the Vanderbilt career rushing records. He has gained over 2,000 yards combined in his first two seasons. Dallas Rivers will start at fullback but also see action at running back. Khari Blasingame, and Josh Crawford should also get significant carries along with freshman fullback Bailey McElwain. He's a fine blocker and a receiving threat.
South Carolina suffered a huge loss to its defense when it was announced that three-year tackle leader linebacker Skai Moore would miss the 2016 season. Last season the Gamecocks were last in the SEC in rushing defense and 109th in the FBS allowing 217.4 yards per game. Linebacker T.J. Holloman finished third on the team with 63 tackles including 2 1/2 tackles for loss. He also intercepted two passes.
SOUTH CAROLINA PASSING OFFENSE VS. VANDERBILT PASSING DEFENSE
South Carolina had a decent passing game a year ago, finishing seventh in the SEC averaging 208 yards per game. Quarterback Perry Orth is back for 2016. Last season he passed for 272 yards a touchdown in USC's 19-10 win over Vandy. He completed a 78-yard touchdown pass to Pharoh Cooper, who is thankfully now in the NFL, to seal the win. RS senior Matrick Belton is the lone returning Gamecock starting receiver. He caught 11 passes for 121 yards last season. South Carolina returns just two starters on the offensive line.
In 2015 Vanderbilt limited opponents to 207 yards passing per game and allowed just 10 touchdowns (tied for 1st SEC). The Commodores returns three of four starters in the defensive secondary. Veteran cornerback Torren McGaster leads the secondary and has 132 career tackles and two interceptions. Redshirt junior inside linebacker Zach Cunningham leads the VU defense in career sacks with six. Defensive tackle Adam Butler has 5 1/2 sacks during his time at Vandy.
SOUTH CAROLINA RUSHING OFFENSE VS. VANDERBILT RUSHING DEFENSE
Last season the Gamecocks averaged 154.7 yards per game rushing, ironically that is the same number as Vanderbilt's 2015 rushing yards per game average. The Gamecocks will start a redshirt freshman at running back. A.J. Turner is a former 3-star prospect who rushed for almost 1,300 yards and 32 touchdowns as a junior in high school. He didn't play most of his senior season due to a wrist injury. As mentioned earlier, USC has two starters returning on the offensive line.
A year ago Vanderbilt finished seventh in the SEC in rushing defense allowing 143 yards per game. Vandy returns starting inside linebackers Zach Cunningham along with Nigel Bowden who started the 2015 season at inside linebacker but was injured. Cunningham had 103 tackles last season and was selected to the several preseason All-SEC teams.
EDGE: SOUTH CAROLINA
Tommy Openshaw made 12-of-19 field goals last season and 8 of 11 attempts in 2014. Openshaw, who both punted and kicked during the 2015 season, will focus on placekicking this season. Openshaw has never missed an extra point in 35 attempts. At punter, Vanderbilt will start junior Reid Nelson. He averaged 43 yards per punt in high school but hasn't punted yet at Vanderbilt in a game. C.J. Duncan will start as both punt and kickoff returner. Duncan has yet to return a punt at Vanderbilt in a live game but return four kickoffs during the 2014 season for a 17.2 yard average. Dallas Rivers will also return kickoffs. Vanderbilt’s kick/punt coverage teams struggled a year ago but new special teams coach Jeff Genyk has extensive experience coaching successful special teams units.
Elliott Fry is the top returning kicker in the SEC. He made 20-of-28 field goals last season while earning second team All-SEC honors. Senior Sean Kelly, who is on the Ray Guy Award Watch List, averaged over 44 yards per punt in 2015. South Carolina will start A.J. Turner and Rashad Fenton as kickoff return men. Fenton also returns punts. He had a 96-yard kickoff return last year at LSU.
Vanderbilt's Derek Mason is 7-17 in his first two years at Vandy. He previously was a defensive coordinator at Stanford and has coached as an assistant in the NFL. Mason took over coordinating of the Commodore defense following the 2014 season and in 2015 Vanderbilt had the most improved defense in the nation (FBS).
South Carolina's Will Muschamp had a 28-21 record in four years at Florida. Last season he was the defensive coordinator at Auburn before moving to Columbia. Muschamp, like Mason, is considered a defensive guru. He was the defensive coordinator at Texas a few years back when the Longhorns won the National Championship.
Vanderbilt is having a "white out" for its 2016 opener with the Gamecocks. The optimism is surging in Vandy country but Vandy has beaten the Gamecocks just four times since USC joined the SEC back in 1992. Too often South Carolina finds a way to prevail or just runs away with it.
PREDICTION: Vanderbilt 20, South Carolina 9. The Commodores should win this game if they execute and avoid blunders like interceptions, turnovers, and special team's breakdowns. All those transgressions should be fewer in 2016 due to a higher level of experience on the team. South Carolina is a formidable opponent and well-coached. Vandy can't afford to go into this game thinking they are better than the Gamecocks. Memories of last year's 19-10 loss in Columbia should quash that thinking.