South Carolina is an important test for the Tigers.
(Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
War Eagle, everybody! It’s time now for another Auburn opponent preview. On October 25th, after a week of rest, the Auburn Tigers host the South Carolina Gamecocks at Jordan Hare Stadium. Both teams will have been tested, and this game will be one Auburn needs to stay atop the SEC West. South Carolina showed in 2010 that it could lose this game, and still win the SEC East. These days in the West, even one SEC loss can eliminate a team.
Much has been made this season about the difficulty of Auburn’s football schedule, but South Carolina has a tough slate as well. The Gamecocks open with a trio of of home games; beginning with a Thursday night clash with Texas A&M. East Carolina and Georgia then visit. South Carolina closes out September with a road trip to Vanderbilt, then they host defending East champ Missouri. A road trip to Kentucky starts the month of October off, followed by an off week, then a tune up against Furman, before the Gamecocks head to Auburn. With Georgia and Missouri already having been played, South Carolina will know where they stand in their division race, by this time. Auburn will have played Arkansas and San Jose State at home, Kansas State on the road, Louisiana Tech for homecoming, then LSU. The Tigers have an off-week coming into this game, and both teams should be relatively well-rested.
Despite losing starting quarterback Connor Shaw and leading receiver Bruce Ellington, this should be a pretty dangerous South Carolina offense. They’ve got plenty of play-makers returning, starting with outstanding running back Mike Davis. New starting quarterback Dylan Thompson has plenty of experience coming off the bench for after Connor Shaw injuries, and should be adept as a passer. Where things will be different for South Carolina is that Thompson is much less of a scrambling threat, although he did notch 3 rushing touchdowns last season. South Carolina has depth and experience in both the receiving corps, and the backfield.
Where it gets interesting for the Gamecocks is on the defensive side of the ball. Both the defensive line and secondary will have to be rebuilt. There is talent in the wings on the defensive line, but I’ve seen several previews that state that incoming signees might win starting cornerback jobs. That’s either a tribute to the incoming class, or a sign of real trouble, probably both. South Carolina will try to build upon experience at linebacker, and talented senior Brison Williams in the secondary. Williams might have to move to corner, if a pair of serviceable starters aren’t found in fall camp.
On special teams, the Gamecocks return all three of their kicking specialists, and were more or less middle of the pack on both coverage units last season. Concerns include a ho-hum return game, and a fairly short 37.8 yards per punt. Much like Auburn did the past few years with Steven Clark, the idea seemed to be to generate high, floating punts that offered little chance for a decent return. Sophomore kicker Elliot Fry was a revelation as a freshman last season, doing very well.
Unit matchups, after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. South Carolina offensive line: Auburn’s final starting lineup next fall is a bit up in the air, at this point. I’d expect senior Gabe Wright to start somewhere, either at tackle or end. Expect tackles Angelo Blackson, Jeffery Whitaker, Montravius Adams, and Ben Bradley to all play prominent roles. LaDarius Owens will likely anchor the run-stopping end spot, with Elijah Daniels now the likely rush end starter. Carl Lawson will likely be a factor by October, but he’s coming off spring knee surgery. As much hype as the Carolina skill players get, the strength of their offense is on the line. It’s a veteran bunch returning, and they had the luxury of swapping some guys around this past spring. South Carolina has likely the biggest two tackles in the league in junior Brandon Shell and senior Corey Robinson. Senior A. J. Cann is a veteran, solid guard, and he’ll likely be joined by talented redshirt freshman Na’Ty Rodgers. Sophomore center Cody Waldrop had a bit of the injury bug as a freshman last season, as well as a few jittery shotgun snaps. By all accounts, he was much better last spring, so much so that he took some snaps at guard. I like Auburn’s chances of causing some disruption in the middle on this bunch, but the matchup on the edge looks pretty tough for the Tigers. Advantage: Even.
Auburn linebackers vs. South Carolina backs: Auburn’s starting linebackers coming out of spring drills are juniors Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy. Both are veteran, athletic SEC players, looking to make the next move up. South Carolina returns an experienced group of backs. Junior Mike Davis was the star last season with 1183 rushing yards and 34 receptions, but he’s not alone. Brandon Wilds and Shon Carson are experienced as well. Senior fullback Connor McLaurin is a blocking force when the Gamecocks decide to go heavy. I think experience and depth wins this matchup. Advantage: South Carolina.
Auburn corners vs. South Carolina receivers: Auburn is again fairly deep at corner, with veteran Jonathan Mincy hopefully locking down one spot, and either junior Joshua Holsey or junior Jonathan Jones at the other spot. Senior converted wide receiver Trovon Reed also looked pretty good in spring drills here. Auburn should be able to run with any receiving corps, and play physical run defense on the edges. They’ll have to, because South Carolina has some weapons at receiver. Outside, they’ll likely start junior Shaq Roland (25 catches last season) and sophomore Pharoah Cooper (3). There’s depth there as well, with Shamier Jeffery (6) and K. J. Brent (2). Advantage: Even.
Auburn safeties vs. South Carolina secondary receivers and quarterback: Senior Jermaine Whitehead anchors one spot here, and Auburn will feature either junior Joshua Holsey, or JUCO transfer Derrick Moncrief at the other position. Moncrief was a beast in spring drills, this year, and Holsey is a veteran. The top secondary receiver for South Carolina last season was running back Mike Davis. The backfield accounted for a total of 49 catches a year ago. Tight ends Rory Anderson and Jerrell Adams combined for 30 catches in 2013. At slot receiver, seniors Damiere Byrd and Nick Jones had 60 catches between them. A look at pass distribution tells the tale, for South Carolina. There was no one player that could be double-covered. Anyone can and will be targeted by this offense. The triggerman responsible for distributing that ball this season will be senior Dylan Thompson. He’s experienced, having thrown 89 passes last season, and he looked sharp in the Carolina spring game. If there’s a quibble from last year, it’s that he only hit 58.4 percent of his passes, with 3 interceptions to 4 touchdowns. His 8.8 yard per pass average was good. Advantage: South Carolina.
Punting: Auburn must start a new punter, here, going with redshirt freshman Jimmy Hutchenson, who had a really solid A-Day game. Senior Tyler Hull will again punt for South Carolina, and he averaged 37.8 yards per punt, with only 12 of 46 punts returned for an 8.2 yard average.Auburn gave up only 5 returns all season, for 35 yards. Auburn is still auditioning punt returners to replace Chris Davis. Sophomore Pharoah Cooper split time last season at punt returner, and had 9 returns for a 4.4 yard average. Advantage: South Carolina.
Kickoffs: Auburn must replace veteran kicker Cody Parkey, and will do it with redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson. Junior Landon Ard was the kickoff man for the Gamecocks last season, and he generated 36 touchbacks on 83 kickoffs. A concern is that he hit 5 kickoffs out of bounds. USC coverage gave up 22.5 yards per return, while Auburn gave up 25.8. Auburn senior Corey Grant ripped off 5 returns for a 32.0 yard average for Auburn as the top guy coming back. The Gamecocks counter with Pharoah Cooper, who averaged 22.4 yards per return last season. Advantage: South Carolina.
Place kicking: Auburn redshirt freshman Daniel Carlson is the man for Auburn. He hit a monster 51 yard field goal this year in the Auburn A-Day game, but also missed an extra point. South Carolina returns sophomore Elliot Fry, who hit 15 of 18 field goal attempts last season, including 6 of 8 from 40 yards or more. Advantage: South Carolina.
Auburn offensive line vs. South Carolina defensive line: Auburn returns 4 starters on a road-grading, violent offensive line. Greg Robinson moves on to the NFL, but Auburn has talent to replace him. From left to right, it’s sophomore Shon Coleman, sophomore Alex Kozan, senior all-SEC Reese Dismukes, senior Chad Slade, and sophomore Avery Young, with junior Patrick Miller still in the hunt to perhaps unseat one of the tackles for a starting job. South Carolina returns one starter on the defensive line, senior tackle J. T. Surratt, who was productive last season with 33 tackles. Junior Gerald Dixon has experience, and will likely a starting nod either at end or other tackle spot. Sophomore JUCO transfer Abu Lamin is said to be very talented, and may make some noise here as well. Sophomore Darius English played behind Clowney last season, and did pretty well. As to other ends, big things are expected of converted linebacker Cedrick Cooper, but injuries have been a problem. A patchwork defensive line will be a problem against Auburn’s front. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. South Carolina linebackers: Although Auburn lost Heisman finalist Tre Mason early to the NFL draft, Auburn should be fine here with seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant. Grant was this year’s A-Day star, looking even more explosive and unstoppable. Add in a corps of talented newcomers, and it’s no secret Auburn will be able to tote the rock again this season. H-back is a bit thinner. Senior blocking specialist Brandon Fulse moves from end/receiver to take over the starting nod, but depth behind him is questionable. South Carolina returns a capable linebacker unit with junior Kaiwan Lewis and sophomore Skai Moore at Mike and Will, and senior Sharrod Golightly at Spur. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn receivers vs. South Carolina corners: Auburn juniors Sammie Coates and Ricardo Louis developed into one of the more dangerous receiving duos in the SEC, last season. Add in monster transfer D’haquille Williams, and this unit became downright scary this spring, with lots of depth behind the big three. This is a position of real concern for the Gamecocks. The penciled-in starters at the end of spring were sophomore Rico McWilliams and redshirt freshman Ali Groves. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. South Carolina safeties: Auburn senior tight end C. J. Uzomah is a nightmare for safeties to cover. When Auburn needed to go to him late in games last season, C. J. was there every time to haul in the score. Auburn also has senior Quan Bray in the equation, who’s been the career quick screen guy. When guys start to clamp down on him, he can get open down the field. Auburn returns senior quarterback Nick Marshall, and he’s easily the most dangerous guy returning at the position in the SEC this fall. With a spring spent working on a shaky passing game, the sky’s the limit this fall. Marshall was devastating running the zone-read option last fall. Senior Brison Williams should be a steadying factor at the strong safety spot. Sophomore Chaz Elder currently has the nod at free safety. Advantage: Auburn.
South Carolina is pretty much always dangerous on offense, and last year’s defense was among the better SEC units, giving up just 20.3 points per game. However, much of that defensive production has graduated or defected early to the NFL. With fairly overwhelming advantages at every spot on offense, the only thing stopping Auburn from having a big day will be themselves.
South Carolina will move the ball and score some points, but I just don’t see them keeping up on the road in this game. Last time Spurrier was in Auburn, he lost his mind and played quarterback roulette in the 4th quarter, and 4 turnovers from that position cost South Carolina the 35-27 loss. I’d imagine we’ll see some visor-slinging in this game, as well.
Prediction: South Carolina can’t keep up with the Auburn fireworks. Tigers win, 41-23.