Audit: Given the scheduling of Georgia’s games this year, I haven’t been able to watch much of South Carolina thus far. What’s the current perception for the Gamecock faithful of what might be the most hyped team in school history? Are they legitimately playing like a top 10 team or just doing what a talented SEC team should be doing against what’s been mostly a cupcake early schedule?
Gamecock Man: Overall, early returns are good. As you say, the jury is still out because we don't have a marquee win yet, but the team has played well since the first game. Blowout wins over ECU and UAB may not mean much in the grand scheme of things, but it says a lot about the availability of playmakers on this offense that we were able to put up lots of points in these games with an unseasoned backup at QB. We struggled early against Kentucky, but you could easily argue that we sleptwalk, and that the both offensive and defensive shellacking we dealt them in the second half is the thing to take away from that game. Missouri was our toughest competition, and that game was more or less over by the end of the second quarter and gave an indication of how Carolina can perform when it has the motivation to play its best game. This seems like a very good team, in short. Most of the concerns we had coming into the season -- special teams play, secondary play, Lattimore's health -- have had positive answers.
Tryptic: I would answer by saying the fanbase is guardedly optimistic. From my vantage point, I'm not seeing or hearing the super-highs ("This is our year to compete for a NC!") or the super-lows ("We're doomed!") that were common not so many years ago before Spurrier & Co. began to stock the program with legit, SEC caliber players. The Vanderbilt game was another disappointing display of ESPN Opening Thursday ineptitude by the Gamecocks, but we've sort of made a habit of that over the years. Against our two C-USA opponents, we were in full control by the second quarter. The Mizzou game was never in doubt (perhaps if MU's Franklin had been healthier the score would have been closer, but we imposed our will on their defense and the loudmouth Sheldon Richardson). We did look like a Brad Scott-era USC team against Kentucky, but from the opening snap of the second half, we looked solid. All that being said, the tale of the tape on whether we're a Top 10 contender or pretender is going to come down to how we perform these next three games.
Audit: Speaking of schedules….anybody wish to take back all the offseason complaining (there were several other NSFW words I’d prefer to use here to describe Gamecock fans and Steve Spurrier this offseason, but this is a family program) and teeth gnashing after Arkansas has unequivocally turned into the worst team in the conference and LSU isn’t exactly looking as formidable lately?
Gamecock Man: Certainly, things look brighter on the scheduling front for Carolina than they once did. In fact, Arkansas looks like it will likely be our easiest conference game of the season, as shocking as that might sound. Still, the bone about the schedule has never been about Arkansas so much as it was that, when it came time to add the sixth divisional game and drop a previously scheduled inter-divisional game, Georgia got to keep Ole Miss and drop 'Bama, while Carolina had to keep LSU and drop Mississippi St. I know that home-away balance was a consideration in this decision, but Georgia fans should be willing to admit why Carolina fans think that something should have been done to prevent this situation. I agree that Spurrier has been a brat about this, but it's equally bratty for Georgia fans to refuse to concede that we have a point.
Tryptic: I had hoped to avoid this issue - over which a lot of ink and bytes was spilled in the off-season, to little avail. Do I believe Georgia received a gift when the Alabama game was pulled from the 2012 schedule? Absolutely - regardless of whether the impetus came from Greg McGarrity, Nick Saban (or the two of them working in tandem). That being said, are we happy that Arkansas has seemingly imploded and LSU has shown some feet of clay? Absolutely - but it doesn't take away from the fact that we travel to Baton Rouge for a night game, while Georgia's trip to Tuscaloosa is indefinitely postponed. Do I think a lot of the continued animosity over the "schedule wars" from the Athenian side isn't so much because of Gamecock bellyaching - who listens to us anyway? - but from the fact UGA took a beating in the national press about your strength of schedule? Definitely. I think it hurt your pride a bit. But you're still a top 5 team, so what does it all matter? Anyhow, I have this fear in the pit of my stomach that Florida may be the team that enjoys the last laugh about the USC-UGA schedule contretemps.
Audit: It appeared for a short while that a potential QB controversy (and we know Spurrier loves him some QB controversy) was brewing in Columbia. What’s the current scuttlebutt on that? Was it ever real or mostly fabricated?
Gamecock Man: Fabricated, in my opinion. (Tryptic may disagree.) I will say I was surprised that Shaw got the start against Mizzou, but that was because I thought Shaw was still hurt, not because I thought there was a legitimate competition. (That is, I've never doubted that Shaw would start when healthy.) As it turned out, Shaw was healthy enough to play at the top of his game, and that answered my concern over him starting. As far as Thompson goes, he exceeded expectations against ECU and UAB, but there's never been any indication that the coaches think he's a viable option as starter over a healthy Shaw, and I think that says volumes. There were certainly some Carolina fans who seemed to buy into the idea that Thompson might ought to be our guy longterm, but that was mostly a product of the old adage that the backup QB is always the most popular guy on the team. I also -- although I really find it irrational and sad -- think that Shaw hasn't garnered the loyalty or trust he deserves from some portions of our fanbase.
Tryptic: A lot of fans - yours truly included - felt that the injury Shaw sustained in the Vanderbilt game was much worse than the staff was letting on, and that it was a mistake to rush him back from the "deep bone bruise," "scapula fracture," or "hairline crack" - call it what you will - before he was ready. Shaw put all those questions to rest in the Mizzou game. So if there was anything "there" in terms of a "QB controversy" it passed like a severe thunderstorm warning that resulted in just a little rain. It's over and forgotten. If anything, most of us now feel better than if Shaw does go down with a significant injury, then we at least have a game-tested backup that the team can rally around.
Audit: What are three keys that Georgia absolutely must succeed at in order to defeat the Gamecocks this Saturday? Conversely, what do you see as three keys that South Carolina must succeed at to come out victorious on Saturday night?
Gamecock Man: Georgia- (1) limit turnovers; (2) protect Murray; (3) don't get behind in the second half. Carolina - (1) rattle Murray; (2) take a lead into the second half; (3) soften up the Georgia defensive front and pound Lattimore.
Tryptic: Georgia- (1) early aerial domination - Murray must decimate the young Carolina DBs; (2) make a game-changing special teams play; (3) find a way to stop Lattimore in the second half. Carolina - (1) harass Aaron Murray and force the two freshmen RB to have to win the game [yes - I know that goes into the be careful what you wish for category, but I think Murray is still your most dangerous piece on the chessboard]; (2) another Missouri-like performance by Shaw; (3) win the special teams battle.
Audit: Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your perspective), I will be out of the country during this game and likely won’t get to watch it at all. When I arrive back in Atlanta next week, what is the best and worst case scenario from a Gamecock perspective that I’ll find out about?
Gamecock Man: Best-case scenario is that we win. Worst-case scenario is that we lose. This is one of the most important games in USC's history. Winning, in any shape or form, is going to set off epic celebrations. Conversely, we're no longer at a point (or, at least we hope this is the case) where we'll take consolation in playing Georgia close in a loss. Losing this game would put a big damper on the season. Not to say that we couldn't come back from a loss and have a decent-ish season, but a win is necessary to meet our ultimate goals.
Tryptic: From a Gamecock perspective, the best-case scenario (in the realm of the realistic) is a margin of victory of a touchdown or more, no injuries and Lattimore gaining 175 all-purpose yards and three scores - in the process outperforming the sensational duo of Gurley and Marshall. In that case, the Cocks will have hung three losses on Georgia for the first time in the series history, and have a signature win over a worthy opponent. The short term benefit will obviously be the inside track for the Eastern Division title, enhanced national prestige and momentum going into back-to-back road trips to Baton Rouge and Gainesville; longer term would be the ability to continue to recruiting elite talent in the Peach State at a high level, and hopefully, block UGA from taking the pick of the litter in the Palmetto State as was the standard practice in the past. While some of us might hope for Quincy Carter-esque meltdown by Aaron Murray, I'd rather beat a rock solid UGA team by the seven point margin as has become the norm recently. If Shaw could exceed Murray's numbers, that would be a treat of course - on the best-case side of the ledger. On the flip side, a loss - even a major trip to the woodshed - isn't a worst-case scenario to me. There's no shame losing to UGA, and if the Dawgs can win by double digits or more, then they've shown that they're the better team. South Carolina would still have realistic goals, however: another 10+ win season; playing for a major bowl; keeping our heads about us in case Georgia slips (or has a season-changing catastrophe like the loss of Murray); and, of course, beating Clemson. Thus, the worst-case scenario to my mind would be a season-ending injury to Marcus Lattimore, Connor Shaw or any of the defensive starters. Whether we bow to Georgia or not, without our starting QB, RB and the first 11 on "D", we'd be hard pressed to meet the aforementioned goals. Obviously, it would be humiliating to get whipped by three or more scores on our home field. But we've been beaten badly by Georgia before - both at Williams-Brice and Sanford Stadium - and we've managed to come back to once again press the Dawgs in subsequent years. So, major injuries are my first, second and third worst-case scenarios.
Sanchez: Marcus Lattimore is back, but is he 100%? He's scored, but only topped 100 yds twice in 5 games. Is it rust, using backups, or OL issues?
Tryptic: During the Mizzou-Carolina telecast, Gary Danielson reported that he had spoken to Lattimore earlier in the week, and that Marcus had told him he was not yet back to "Vintage Lattimore." Accordingly, I think we can take Marcus at his word that he's not 100%. That, of course, begs the question of where he is. The Missouri game was the first game he played without the brace, which has to have been a huge psychological milestone in his comeback. He's also taken some big hits, and the way he exerted himself against Kentucky in the second half also has to have improved his confidence. So, I would say his head is 100% back, and I don't think anyone doubts he plays with 100% heart. In terms of his running? Well - he's playing about 15-20 pounds lighter than last year and inconsistent O line play hasn't helped - I think that partially explains his modest yards-per-carry stats. If had to quantify it, I'd probably say 85% of what he used to be in terms of running to the left and cuts on his left (repaired knee), and maybe 90% to the right; to my eyes he's a half-step slower. Fortunately, he has a good feel for holes and the flow of the game, which he can use to compensate. I also think the conventional wisdom is correct that he's getting stronger every game.
As far as only eclipsing the 100 yard mark twice - that's absolutely true. But both were in games against SEC opponents on the road where he had 20+ carries [Vanderbilt - 110 yards, 23 carries, 2 TDs, 4.8 ypc; Kentucky - 120 yards, 23 carries, 2 TD's, 5.2 ypc]. With Shaw's passing, we didn't need to lean on him in the Mizzou game [85 yards, 21 carries, 2 TD's, 4.0 ypc] - but don't forget (a) Missouri loaded the box to stop him; and (b) he led all USC receivers in that game with 60 yards on seven catches. In fact, Marcus is over 100 yards receiving on the year - which makes him a dangerous option. Most are short throws (i.e., long hand-offs), but that's always been a big part of his game. The final observation I would make has to do with the way it seems - though it's never been confirmed - that Spurrier has him on a play-count or carry-count. I think Spurrier was sensitive to widespread criticism that he was relying too much on Marcus last year, and that the over-use contributed to the injury. The first part of that was likely true; the second part is more unfair, but it's still a perception. Spurrier has been using Lattimore more sparingly, and still hasn't exceeded more than 23 carries. In fact, he rested Lattimore for all intents and purposes against ECU and UAB (13 and 12 carries respectively) - that's why there weren't gaudy numbers against the cupcakes. This strategy has taken Lattimore out of any realistic Heisman and Doak Walker Award consideration, but Marcus is a consummate team player and he seems content with the decision-making; if anything, it's a testament to his and Spurrier's patience that they're easing him back in. Obviously, they both have to think of Lattimore's future. Plus Spurrier has used senior back-up RB Kenny Miles more heavily, too - even after Kenny made a bad red zone fumble against Mizzou. Of course, one might ask does this mean Georgia can expect Marcus only to run 20-25 times against them? I would say no - except in the case of a (highly unlikely) big Carolina lead. For this game, I think Lattimore gets 30-35 touches. Unless he totally gasses - which is also highly unlikely - look for number 21 to be pounding the ball on the final possession of the game.
Gamecock Man: I'm more or less with Tryptic on this issue. Lattimore isn't 100%, but he's getting closer as the season progresses. I wouldn't make too much of the lack of gaudy statistics. Lattimore was -- wisely, as I think we can all agree -- used sparingly in the cupcake games against ECU and UAB. He hasn't looked slow to me, although that's partially because he was never a speed back in the first place. He's always been a guy who has used his vision and ability to anticipate hits to earn extra yardage. However, the problem has been that he's shown some reluctance to cut hard on the knee, which has made it difficult for him to show the same moves around contact that have set him apart in the past. That seems to be becoming less and less the case as he gets used to playing again, and I agree with Tryptic that we've seen a a significant difference since the brace came off. The second-half performance against Kentucky was as close to vintage Lattimore as we've seen so far this season. He made a couple of beautiful cuts on the injured knee in that game. Obviously, UGA will present more of a challenge, but I'm happy with where Lattimore is. This is probably the healthiest he'll be all year. He's recovering from the injury, and he hasn't been worn out in recent games. He may need to shoulder a big load in this one, and it's good that he's fresh.
Sanchez:Speaking of OL issues, how have the new OTs developed as pass protectors, and how much help will they need blocking Jarvis Jones and the rest of Georgia's front 7?
Tryptic: The O line play has been a bit of a disappointment this year - both on pass and run blocking. That's a shame, because a lot of Gamecock fans felt we'd finally turned the corner with Coach Shawn Elliot in terms of both talent and depth at the point of attack We had particularly hoped that big, rangy RS Freshman Brandon Shell (6'5", 330) would be a permanent starter and difference-maker at LT. Unfortunately, Shell suffered a nagging ankle injury late in camp, which combined with some inconsistent play on his part has pushed him down the depth chart to reserve status. In the interim, we've been experimenting with Sophomores Mike Matulis (6'5", 274) and Corey "Condo" Robinson (6'8", 337) at both tackle positions. While Robinson has made great strides at LT, the constant switching and a minor shoulder injury to Matulis in the Mizzou game, has limited their effectiveness. With both Robinson and Matulis expected to start as LT and RT, respectively, against Georgia, hopefully this will settle the line down. Senior center T.J. Johnson had a really poor performance against UK; he will have to step up against Georgia. The guard play of A.J. Cann (6'4", 309) and Ronald Patrick (6'2", 305) has been steady but unspectacular. But will they need help blocking Jones and the rest of the Georgia front seven? Absolutely. Not only will we have to scheme against the pass rush, but you'll see plenty of TE and FB help. Fortunately, the TEs are a big part of our offense, but no serious Carolina fan thinks this is going to be a walk through the park. Jones & Co. are going to get their share of sacks and tackles-for-loss.
Gamecock Man: As Tryptic said, the OL is still a work in progress. The only thing I would disagree with him on is that I think OG A.J. Cann has been very very solid so far, whereas the other guard, Ronald Patrick has struggled. But Cann got lit up a couple of times against Kentucky, so go figure. One thing to note is that when Shell and Matulis were starting at tackle, we played better in run blocking, probably because Shell comes from a run-heavy HS offense and is still learning the ropes in pass protection. Gibson and Matulis seemed a bit better in pass protection but worse in run protection. The Matulis-Robinson duo seems to bring more stability. They really did a pretty decent job against a decent Missouri defensive front, and the loss of Matulis against Kentucky was keenly felt. He's clearly our best tackle, so it's good that we have him back for UGA. I also agree that FB and TE play a big role in our blocking. FB Qua Gilchrist is excellent out of the I and had a couple of jaw-dropping blocks against Kentucky, including the one that set up Kenny Miles's long TD run.
Sanchez: While still on the subject of probem areas, how have the young DBs looked? Considering Georgia's big play potential (#1 in the nation right now in yards per play), how does South Carolina expect to slow down Aaron Murray, Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, and Co. from long TDs?
Tryptic: I've been pleasantly surprised by how well the DB's have played and new position coach Grady Brown deserves a lot of credit for this . RS Sophomore Jimmy Legree (6'0", 189) - who had a terrible day last year against Georgia playing FS - has really cemented himself at CB in relief of the talented, but oft-injured Senior Akeem Auguste (5'9", 188). With Auguste back, we now have some decent depth. At boundary corner, Sophomore Victor Hampton and back up Freshman Ahmad Christian have been playing well. Of course, Senior safety D.J. Swearinger (6'2", 242) is our biggest playmaker in the backfield. Despite a bit of an outlaw reputation (the unflagged P.I. at the end of the Vandy game, and the suspension for the helmet-to-helmet hit against UAB), he could be the difference-maker against Aaron Murray's passing attack and we'll be relying on him heavily to keep his head in the game.
Obviously, we're concerned about UGA's big play ability. One unit that must step up are the linebackers. If Gurley and Marshall can consistently get past the second tier of containment, it will be a long night for the Gamecocks. Senior LBs Shaq Wilson (5'11", 224) and Reggie Bowens (6'3", 254) - practically interchangeable as "WILL" or "MIKE" - will have to play flawlessly. All that being said, I wouldn't be surprised if Georgia scores two or three "long" TD's. It's something we're just going to have to weather.
Gamecock Man: The play of the back four has been surprisingly OK. There have been breakdowns here and there, but considering that this was probably the single biggest concern for Carolina coming into the year, we're doing pretty good here. Legree has been much better than expected. If anything, Hampton has been more of a liability than Legree, which I didn't expect to ever have to say. Hampton is a more talented corner, but he has focus issues and makes mistakes sometimes. We also have Auguste coming back, which should help a lot. I doubt you'll see Christian much in this game. We're pretty solid at safety. Brison Williams was at fault on the long passing TD against Vandy, but other than that he's playing well. D.J. Swearinger was playing like an All-American prior to his suspension. He was quiet against Kentucky, though.
Sanchez: South Carolina has 22 sacks through 5 games defensively, while Georgia has allowed only 7 so far. How important are Taylor, Clowney, and the rest of the DL to South Carolina's success? Go ahead, and try to convince me why Clowney is the best defensive player in the country.
Tryptic: The DL is crucial. Full stop. If Coach Richt and Coach Bobo can scheme to neutralize the four man rush, and if the Bulldog OL matches the Cock DL mano-y-mano, then it's likely that Georgia will win the game. That's just how important the pass rush is to Lorenzo Ward's more aggressive version of the USC "4-2-5" base defense. Most of the Garnet and Black partisans felt that Georgia offensive linemen got away with flagrant holds and hands-to-the-face in last year's contest; while we're sure you feel (probably with complete justification) that the Jones and the rest of the Red and Black pass-rushers also get held almost every play too. We probably both can agree the team that can draw the most holding calls should be the one that has the W at the end of the game. If the zebras just let the O lineman hook and claw though, then it will come down to fourth quarter conditioning and depth. Maybe that's where the South Carolina DL can possibly find an edge, albeit - admittedly - a slight one if it's there at all.
About Clowney. I don't think I take anything away from Jadeveon if I decide not to take the bait and argue that he's the "best" defensive player in the country. After all, he's just a sophomore and making just his fifth career start. That being said, however, I'd say that he is definitely among the best - and that just like Jones he has the skills and playmaking ability to change the complexion of the game all by himself. So is Jarvis Jones the best? I think it's too early to say for certain - but if he isn't numero uno, he's within the top three. All I do know is that were I picking an All SEC team to play an All B1G or All Pac-12 squad ... or if I was an NFL general manager - I'd want both Jarvis and Jadeveon on it.
Gamecock Man: Like Tryptic said, the DL is crucial. While I'm happy with our secondary play so far, I still think Murray will pick us apart if we're not able to generate consistent pressure. I think that's true for any team that plays UGA, and it's the reason why I think it'll be hard for any SEC teams other than USC, LSU, 'Bama, and Florida to beat UGA going forward. As far as Clowney goes, I never called him the best defender in the country. I just said I thought you were mistaken when you said that Jones is "much better" than Clowney. I stand by that statement and think that early season returns have validated my opinion. Clowney is among the best. The best? We'll see. This game might have a great deal to say about which player stays in the running for that honor.
Sanchez: Score prediction, why, and will the winner be facing Alabama in Atlanta this December?
Tryptic: Prediction - South Carolina 38 Georgia 35. Why? In recent years, the margin has been super-close and there's reason to think it will be different this year? Why does USC win? The home crowd will help. This will be the toughest D that Georgia has faced all season, and the hope is that we can frustrate the incredibly talented but still young duo of Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley who have never played in that environment (with all due respect to Missouri's Faurot Field), and that we can harass Aaron Murray into just enough incompletions - and possibly one or two key turnovers - to win the game. Georgia has struggled against the run this season, which is surprising but something we have to exploit. Finally, while I give Coach Grantham all due and proper respect, I'm sticking with Spurrier, and I like USC D.C. Lorenzo Ward against Mike Bobo. In any event, you didn't think I'd pick Georgia, did you? If y'all win, I will come by and eat a heaping plate of steamed crow, with all the fixin's. Otherwise, GO COCKS!
Gamecock Man: 48-0 South Carolina. Don't say I didn't warn you.
In all honesty, I'm going to chicken out and refuse to pick this game for now. I'll put up my prediction tomorrow evening. I do think it might be slightly lower-scoring than some are saying. Maybe in the 28-24 ballpark.
Thanks to Tryptic, Gamecock, and Audit for all their help with this.