War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another 2011 Acid Reign preview. This week, we’ll take a look at the SEC Eastern Division Champion South Carolina Gamecocks. Last season the Gamecocks made history with their first appearance in the SEC Title game in Atlanta. As successful as that sounds, the Gamecocks did suffer two losses to Auburn, while giving up 1081 total yards to the Tigers. This year, the two schools meet in Columbia on the first day of October.
It’s a rebuilding year for Auburn this season, while the perception is that South Carolina “returns everybody.” That’s not quite true. South Carolina actually lost 13 starters to graduation and early NFL departures. While a number of good starters return, including weapons Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery, there are some holes to fill in the starting lineup for the Gamecocks. The offseason hasn’t been without controversy, either. Starting quarterback Stephen Garcia received his sixth suspension from the program, and missed spring drills. This allowed sophomoreConnor Shaw to receive most of the serious work this past spring, but Garcia has since been reinstated, and presumably will play this fall. Whether this situation at quarterback will divide the team remains to be seen.
There is a good bit of talent returning for the Gamecocks, including 48 lettermen, and they augmented that with a top-ten recruiting class featuring all-world defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. The schedule for South Carolina is a bear, particularly the section leading up to the Auburn game. South Carolina does play in a division with Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Tennessee, and they have the Citadel for homecoming. There are no easy games beyond that. Prior to hosting Auburn, South Carolina faces a tough September. First, they play Ruffin McNeil’s East Carolina Pirates in Charlotte. That’s a salty opener. ECU had wins over Tulsa, Southern Miss, North Carolina State and Marshall last year. Next, the Gamecocks travel to Athens, Georgia for a grudge match with the Bulldogs. The Navy Midshipmen visit Columbia after that. This might be a pretty tough assignment for defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, dealing with the wild triple option offense Navy runs. On September 24th, the Gamecocks host Vandy, as they’ll try to blow out to a big lead and rest up for Auburn. Meanwhile, the Tigers will have played Utah State, Mississippi State, at Clemson, and Florida Atlantic.
The general consensus from football writers this fall is that South Carolina and Arkansas should field the most dominant offenses in the SEC. How odd that sounds! The Gamecocks return sophomore tailback Marcus Lattimore, junior receiver Alshon Jeffery, and a host of other dangerous playmakers. There are two issues to watch on this offense. The Gamecock left offensive tackle must be replaced, as well as do-it-all blocker/receiver/fullback Patrick DeMarco. The strongest point of Auburn’s defense is at defensive end. It could be argued that hits on quarterback Stephen Garcia doomed South Carolina both times last season against the Tigers. The other issue is the quarterback controversy. When Garcia is on, he’s very good, both as a runner and a strong arm. His protection has been spotty throughout his career, and the book on him is that he’s capable of major mistakes if he’s harassed. Sophomore Connor Shaw is a terrific scrambler, but there are some questions about his downfield arm strength. Head Coach Steve Spurrier’s never been shy about giving a quarterback the hook. Has that helped him, or hurt him over his two decades in the SEC? That’s a debate for another time.
South Carolina special teams take a blow with the departure of kicker/punterSpencer Lanning, but there are some strong legs waiting in the wings to take the field this year. Sophomore return man Ace Sanders is a speedy weapon, as is juniorBryce Sherman. The Gamecocks were respectable in coverage last year, and expect to improve with an injection of talent from their latest recruiting class.
Defensively, Ellis Johnson had his hands full last year against the Auburn Tigers. Last season in game one, he tried a deep zone to prevent Newton bombs, and ended up giving up 334 rushing yards. In the SEC title game, the Gamecocks loaded the box, and attempted to put a spy on Cam Newton. Auburn went to the air early and often, and rolled to a 589 yard day. This season, I think Johnson will have to attack up front again. The Gamecocks must replace starting tackle Ladi Ajiboye, end Cliff Matthews, and linebackers Josh Dickerson and Tony Straughter. There should be plenty of young talent up front for the Gamecock coaches to work with, but a read-based young defensive front might not be the best plan against a shifty Gus Malzhan offense.
Unit Matchups after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. South Carolina offensive line: Auburn had apparent problems in the A-Day game at defensive tackle, and that spells trouble against a pretty good Gamecock interior line. The key to stopping the Gamecock base run plays is to turn the running back outside. At end, Auburn has the upper hand, withNosa Eguae, Dee Ford and Corey Lemonier all expected to make some noise. Projected Gamecock starters are senior Kyle Nunn, who moves over to left tackle, senior guard Terrence Campbell, junior T. J. Johnson who moves from guard to center, senior guard Rokevious Watkins, and redshirt freshman Cody Gibson at right tackle. Advantage: Even.
Auburn linebackers vs. South Carolina backs: The good news for Auburn is that returning linebackers Darren Bates, Eltoro Freeman and Jonathan Evans have experience shutting sophomore star Marcus Lattimore down. In two games last fall, Lattimore totaled only 117 yards on the ground, with a 3.9 yard per carry average. Without Patrick DeMarco opening holes, Lattimore’s job will only become more difficult. Carolina does have depth at tailback, with juniors Kenny Miles and Eric Baker ready to come off the bench if needed. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn corners vs. South Carolina receivers: Auburn had great difficulty containing Gamecock receivers last season. There has been some off-season shuffling of the Auburn lineup, as Demond Washington graduated, and Neiko Thorpe moved to safety. Projected starters T’Sharvan Bell and Chris Davis got extensive experience in the two games last season, and Jonathan Mincy andJonathan Rose looked solid in spring drills. The Gamecocks lost receiver Tori Gurley early to the NFL, but it will hardly make a difference on a loaded roster. There’s no one in the conference that matches up well with junior Alshon Jeffery. Senior Jason Barnes and junior D. J. Moore are big targets that can run, and South Carolina can go small and speedy with sophomore Ace Sanders. Advantage: South Carolina.
Auburn safeties vs. South Carolina secondary receivers and quarterback:Auburn will field a new/old tandem this fall at safety: converted corner Neiko Thorpe and sophomore Demetruce McNeal. Thorpe has played a lot of football in the past three years, and by all accounts is making a very successful transition to safety, where he’s more suited. McNeal is fast and is a ferocious hitter, but only has spot duty last season on his resume. These guys will get some one-on-one matchups with some of the receivers above, plus junior fullbacks/tight ends Justice Cunningham and Dalton Wilson. South Carolina had success on Auburn matching Marcus Lattimore up man to man with a safety last season, also. If Garcia or Shaw has consistent time to throw, this will be a very difficult matchup for the Tigers. Advantage: South Carolina.
Punting: Auburn will field sophomore Steven Clark, who had a several shaky starts last fall. If the A-Day game is any indication, Clark will boast a much stronger leg this fall. Contenders for the Gamecock punting job include senior Jay Wooten and redshirt freshman Patrick Fish. Fish is the rare punter who came in on scholarship. Auburn’s still unsettled as to who will return punts, and had fumble problems back there the past two seasons. South Carolina will go with some combination of Ace Sanders and Stephon Gilmore. Neither team blocked for returns well. Auburn held opponents to 4.5 yards per return, South Carolina gave up 9.3. Advantage: Even.
Kickoffs: Auburn sophomore Cody Parkey was used about a third of the time last season, and he averaged 63.2 yards per kickoff. Auburn was second in the SEC last season in kick coverage, helped by a nasty coverage team. Senior specialist Jay Wooten took over last season kicking off, and averaged 63.6 yards. Auburn gave up 19.7 yards per kick return, South Carolina gave up 20.7. Auburn junior Onterio McCalebb figures to be the primary kick returner. McCalebb averaged 28.4 yards per return in 2010. Bryce Sherman handled the bulk of the return duties for the Gamecocks last season, but only managed 20.4 yards per return. Advantage: Auburn.
Place kicking: Sophomore Cody Parkey takes over as the Auburn kicker. His only college experience is a couple of extra points kicked late in the Homecoming game. Parkey is said to have had a good spring. Parkey’s backup Chandler Brooks hit three field goals longer than 40 yards in Auburn’s A-Day Game. The Gamecocks must replace Spencer Lanning. The job is still up in the air, between seniors Jay Wooten, Joey Scribner-Howard, and junior Adam Yates. Advantage: Even.
Auburn offensive line vs. South Carolina defensive line: Inside, Auburn came out of spring with sophomore Blake Burgess starting at center, with senior Jared Cooper and junior John Sullen at the guard slots. Only Sullen has significant front-line playing time. Tackles will be seniors Brandon Mosley and A. J. Greene. The Gamecocks mixed and matched up front this spring, trying to replace two starters on a unit that led the SEC in sacks last season. Projected starters are senior Travian Robertson and junior Aldrick Fordham at tackles,and junior Devin Taylor and senior Melvin Ingram at ends. Expect incoming freshman Jadeveon Clowney to make some immediate noise. A pass-rush tandem of Clowney and Ingram will be ferocious! Advantage: Even.
Auburn backs vs. South Carolina linebackers: The Tigers return the one-two punch of Michael Dyer and Onterrio McCalebb at running back, and will look to the incoming signing class to fill out the depth chart. Last year’s Gamecock unit gave up a total of 572 rushing yards to the Tigers, and must replace two starters. Seniors Rodney Paulk, Antonio Allen, and junior Shaq Wilson will try to hold the middle down. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. South Carolina corners: Auburn will rely heavily on returning veteran Emory Blake, and intriguing prospects DeAngelo Benton and Quindarius Carr. Junior Stephon Gilmore returns on one side for the Gamecocks. When we last saw Gilmore, he was giving up 207 receiving yards to Darvin Adamsin the SEC Title Game. On the other side, Senior Akeem Auguste replaces the departed Chris Culliver. Senior C. C. Whitlock adds depth. Carolina should be improved in the secondary, and Auburn replaces all starters. Advantage: Even.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. South Carolina safeties:Auburn’s most notable returning secondary receiver is tight end/h-back Phillip Lutzenkirchen, who was a clutch go-to guy last year. About half of his catches resulted in touchdowns. The Tigers also have options from the speedy Trovon Reed to the 290 pound H-Back LaDarius Phillips. Auburn is still in the midst of a quarterback race, but junior Barrett Trotter seems to have the upper hand at this point. Regardless of whether Trotter or sophomore Clint Moseley start, Auburn will field a quarterback with three year’s worth of experience practicing the Gus Malzhan offensive system. Carolina returns a pair of junior starters at safety, DeVonta Holloman and D. J. Swearinger. These two were virtual no-shows against Auburn last year. In game one, they were placed back in cover-two, waiting for a Cam Newton bomb that never came. The pair combined for only 10 tackles. In the title game, the pair were moved up to help with the run, were non-existent in coverage with one pass breakup, and combined for only 5 tackles. Advantage: Auburn.
Flashy multiple formation offenses aside, this matchup will again boil down to who can run the ball successfully. In the battle of the two headliner freshman backs last season, Michael Dyer finished with 164 rushing yards, while Marcus Lattimore had 117. Both sides have had to rebuild on both lines, so again the focus will be on these two stars. Quarterback mistakes will be big. Last year, Auburn had no interceptions and 1 lost fumble from Cam Newton. South Carolina’s duo put two balls on the ground for the other team, and had five interceptions, one a back-breaking pick six.
Gamecock defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson surprised me in both games last season, and I KNOW he’s hoping for a better showing this year in the sequel in Columbia! Expect a similar effort from Auburn’s Ted Roof. The Tigers will try to stop the run, and keep the dangerous Carolina receivers in front. The Tigers will give up chunks of yardage, but will try to force the Carolina quarterbacks into mistakes. It was a successful formula last season, as Auburn ultimately held the explosive Carolina attack to 22 points per game, with several critical turnovers.
Prediction: It’s a big matchup in Columbia in early October, as both teams try to keep their division hopes alive. Both teams have grown during September. In the end, Auburn’s Barrett Trotter takes care of the ball, and the Tiger running game moves the chains. Auburn wears down the Gamecocks, and scores a come-from-behind 31-30 victory!