2006 Season Preview (Game Two): South Carolina

Emboldened by my readers' confidence that the 'Dawgs will be better than I think, I am continuing the march through the season, moving from the Western Kentucky game to the Red and Black's Southeastern Conference opener and its corresponding confrontation with this fellow:

The Game

Georgia v. South Carolina
Williams-Brice Stadium
Saturday, September 9

The Opponent

The Fighting Fowl are familiar foes to the fine folks from the Classic City. Although Georgia and South Carolina did not become division rivals in the Southeastern Conference until 1992, the border war between them dates back to 1894 and the two teams squared off in all but three of the seasons from 1958 to 1989.

The Bulldogs lead the all-time series with a 43-13-2 record against the Palmetto State Poultry, but four of the last five meetings have been settled by margins of six or fewer points.

A Brief History of the University of South Carolina

Columbia, S.C., is home to the flagship campus of the University of South Carolina, an institution consisting of three other senior campuses (Aiken, Beaufort, and Upstate) and four regional campuses (Lancaster, Sumter, Salkehatchie, and Union). The main campus is home to 15 degree-granting colleges and schools.

What began as South Carolina College was founded in 1801. The institution closed periodically during the War and Reconstruction before being rechartered for the final time in 1906. In 1917, the school became the first state-supported college in the Palmetto State to receive regional accreditation.

The University of South Carolina at Columbia is ranked 52nd among public national universities. Just over 13,000 applicants sought admission to the entering freshman class in the fall of 2005 and almost 9,000 of them were accepted.

A Brief History of Gamecock Football

South Carolina fielded its first football team in 1892 and won its first football game in 1895. That set the tone for a program that is perhaps unmatched in the annals of the Southeastern Conference for sheer football futility.

The Gamecocks claimed the 500th win in school history in 2005 . . . after having suffered the 500th loss in school history two years earlier. The Fighting Fowl played in their first bowl game on January 1, 1946, but they would not claim their first postseason victory until January 2, 1995.

South Carolina has belonged to three conferences (Southern, Atlantic Coast, and Southeastern) and claimed one championship in 64 years of league competition. That lone title came in 1969, when the Gamecocks went 6-0 in A.C.C. play yet suffered lopsided losses at Tennessee (29-14), Florida State (34-9), and Georgia (41-16) before losing the Peach Bowl.

The line of accomplished coaches to have presided over the South Carolina football program is impressive. Paul Dietzel won the 1958 national championship at L.S.U. . . . then went 42-53-1 in Columbia. Lou Holtz won the 1988 national championship at Notre Dame . . . then went 33-37 with the Gamecocks. Steve Spurrier won the 1996 national championship at Florida . . . then took over a 6-5 South Carolina squad and coached it up so much that it improved all the way to 7-5.

Also, I don't have hard statistical data to back this up or anything, but, based upon my own personal observation from years of going to S.E.C. football games, I feel confident in saying that, on average, South Carolina has the fattest fan base in the conference.

Returning Starters

Five offensive starters are back on campus this fall, most notably quarterback Blake Mitchell and wide receiver Sidney Rice. Former first-string tailback Mike Davis returns, as well, although, now that Cory Boyd's year-long suspension is at an end, Davis is back to his proper place on the depth chart. Of the offensive linemen who received significant playing time in 2005, only center Chris White will take the field again in 2006.

Four Gamecock starters return on defense. All three of last year's first-team linebackers are gone, as is monster defensive back Ko Simpson, but Fred Bennett continues to line up at corner for the Fighting Fowl.

Coaching

Some say Steve Spurrier is the head coach at South Carolina. The Ol' Ball Coach, though, is just a figurehead.

We all know who really pulls Spurrier's strings, don't we? They call him the Evil Genius, don't they? He used to coach the Duke Blue Devils, didn't he? Surely you don't think it's coincidental that Mike Davis, the Gamecocks' leading rusher in 2005, amassed 666 rushing yards in Darth Visor's first season in Columbia, do you?

Mark Richt is a man of God but Steve Superior made a pact with the devil. It's only a matter of time before Satan ascends from the 50 yard line at halftime to lay claim to Stevie Boy's immortal soul.

Offense

Mitchell's 215.5 yards per game in 2005 were the second most among S.E.C. signal-callers returning in 2006, but he led the league in interceptions (12) and developed tunnel vision, as one out of every three completed passes last season found its way to Rice. The South Carolina offense will benefit from the return of Boyd, but the Gamecocks are a young team with fewer scholarship seniors (6) than true freshmen offensive linemen (8).

The dropoff between the best and the rest is considerable in Columbia. Rice led the team with 13 touchdown catches, but the second-leading receiver caught two T.D. passes. White has 28 career starts on the offensive line, but the other linemen combined have 15 starts between them.

However, Mitchell may be pushed by redshirt freshman Cade Thompson, who led his squad to a 35-7 victory in the South Carolina spring game, connecting on 10 of his 13 pass attempts for 136 yards and two touchdowns. In light of Darth Visor's tendency to give his quarterbacks the quick hook, Mitchell may spend as much time looking over his shoulder as he spends picking himself up off the turf.

Defense

Two of the Gamecocks' four linemen return, but nose tackle Stanley Doughty is overweight (which may drop him behind Nathan Pepper on the depth chart) and defensive end Jordin Lindsey, much like new starters Marque Hall and Dakota Walker, is undersized. Although Hall and Walker should be able to contribute, the line will need to step up if the Palmetto State Poultry are to improve a defense that ranked 11th in the conference (and 85th in the country) against the run in 2005.

Although the Fighting Fowl linebacking corps must be rebuilt, South Carolina received immediate help in the form of a pair of junior college transfers, twin brothers Casper and Jasper Brinkley. The latter evidently impressed the Evil Genius during spring practice and earned a starting position at middle linebacker.

Despite Bennett's presence in the secondary, there are question marks galore in the defensive backfield. Converted wideout Carlos Thomas is faster than he is physical, but he will start opposite Bennett at corner. Free safety Mychal Belcher is athletic but he may lose his starting spot to Syvelle Newton's latest position change, as the onetime quarterback, running back, and wide receiver appears to be attempting to do on the football field what Elliot Richardson tried to do in the Cabinet: play every position.

Special Teams

Ryan Succop, a sophomore, will replace Josh Brown as the all-purpose placekicker and punter, although his accuracy is suspect when it comes to short field goals and extra points. Succop attempted two field goals last season, missing both.

Dawg Food

After my Western Kentucky preview, I was reminded by Mark of the importance of incorporating the opponent's mascot into your pregame meal . . . what my old "Dawg Show" co-host, Travis Rice, and I used to call "feasting on the flesh of the enemy."

Inspired by Mark's observation, I have decided to add an additional component to my game-by-game previews: what you should eat prior to the game in order to bring good fortune to the Red and Black. For some opposing teams, this will be something of a stretch, but, for South Carolina, this is simplicity itself.

Eat more chicken. How you prepare it is up to you, whether you go the traditional route of barbecue chicken . . .

. . . or go through the Chick-fil-A drive-through window . . .

. . . or even opt for a Chick-fil-A sandwich with bacon. Just make sure you eat chicken in some form or fashion before kickoff in Columbia. We can use all the help we can get.

What Worries Me Most

Three concerns vie for the role of most troublesome. Take your pick:

  • Georgia has much the same problem with South Carolina that the Bulldogs have with Georgia Tech; namely, the other team takes the rivalry much more seriously than we do. Just as 'Dawg fans consider the Yellow Jackets one of their three or four main rivals rather than deeming the Ramblin' Wreck the main rival the way Georgia Tech fans view us, Bulldog Nation puts the Gamecocks in fifth place---maybe sixth, when Clemson is on the schedule---but the Fighting Fowl regard the Classic City Canines as second only to the Tigers of Lake Hartwell on their list of rivals. Simply stated, Georgia always gets South Carolina's best shot, but they only intermittently get ours.
  • The game is in Columbia. The Palmetto State Poultry are significantly more dangerous in The Coop (or is it The Cockpit?) than they are when the Big Chickens cross the road. In the last dozen series meetings, the 'Dawgs have been 4-2 at Williams-Brice and 5-1 between the hedges, but the outings on the South Carolina campus have been much more nerve-wracking: Georgia's average margin of victory over the Gamecocks in the last six games in Athens has been 26-14, but the contests in Columbia have been a good deal closer (16-15, on average).
  • If this game were rescheduled for October or November, I would be considerably less worried. However, last season's graduations and this season's suspensions have left the Red and Black inexperienced and thin on the offensive side of the ball. A night game on the road against an emotional opponent in the S.E.C. is not the optimal circumstance in which to field an offense composed of backups and rookies. The stingy Gamecock D---which has spotted the 'Dawgs more than 17 points just thrice over the course of the last decade---will not be kind to the Classic City Canines during their on-the-job training in Columbia.

What Will Happen on Saturday

Following Peter's example, I will save any actual predictions for the season itself and content myself for the moment with offering only "if/then" sorts of statements.

Much like Nuke LaLoosh, last year's South Carolina squad was all over the place. Three of the Gamecocks' five losses were by a touchdown or less, while five of their seven victories were by nine points or fewer. In 2005, the Palmetto State Poultry were just a few bounces away from 10-2 but approximately the same number of bounces away from a two- or three-win campaign.

Georgia and South Carolina face some of the same challenges, from finding a credible second receiving threat to shoring up a thin offensive line, but the Gamecocks return an experienced quarterback and the Bulldogs field the more proven defense. On the second Saturday of the season, neither offense will have had time to gel, so I expect a defensive struggle in spite of both coaches' desire to throw the ball.

How's this for a prediction: the losing team will miss a field goal, the winning team will score a non-offensive touchdown, and those two events will between them decide the outcome of the contest.

Go 'Dawgs!

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