Mitchell: How Vandy Beats South Carolina
South Carolina QB Connor Shaw
South Carolina QB Connor Shaw
CollegeFootballNews.com
Posted Aug 30, 2012


This contest between South Carolina and Vanderbilt kicks off the 2012 SEC and college football seasons, and it should be far closer than many people think. CFN's lead SEC Columnist Russ Mitchell explains how the Commodores can pull off the "upset" at home in the Music City.


By Russ Mitchell
Follow me @russmitchellcfb

By this point we know the highlights: South Carolina sports the legendary Head Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier. His superstar running back, Marcus Lattimore, is quite possibly the best in college football. Top to bottom, there's more overall talent on this roster than Vanderbilt’s, and according to the recruiting “experts” it’s not even close.

And then there's Vandy. The little brother to SC’s big man on campus. Football mediocrity personified. Unable even to sell out it's ~40,000 seat stadium for a nationally televised, SEC divisional game against a Top Ten opponent until moments before kickoff. Pathetic, right?

However, before your gaze wanders past this kickoff to college football under a warm summer night in Nashville, you’d do best to pull up a chair – for this game is hardly the fait accompli many think it is. In fact, it’s far closer to a pick ‘em.

TWO GOOD FRONT SEVENS

Both offensive lines are rebuilding. South Carolina doesn’t have an upperclassman tackle on its roster, and while Vandy has some experience, there’s not a lot of size. As a result, Thursday night’s focus will be more on the defensive lines.

SC might have the best front four in the SEC, yet if it had one weakness in 2011 it was defending against the run. It may have ranked third in the nation in total defense (behind Bama and LSU), but it was a lukewarm 45th stopping the run. If that wasn’t enough, this year the unit must replace two of its best tacklers in DT Travian Robertson and DE Melvin Ingram, both lost to the NFL. Additionally, there’s only one starting linebacker (senior Shaq Wilson) and precious little depth – so much so, in fact, that senior DeVonte Holloman was forced to move up from starting safety to linebacker.

This front seven must stop a Vandy backfield with senior Zac Stacy, fresh off setting the school record for rushing yards in a season, and redshirt junior Warren Norman, who returns after sitting out 2011 with a knee injury. Reports out of Nashville have the 5-10, 205 pound Norman back to his 2009 SEC Freshman of the Year form.

Conversely, while Vandy must replace a very good end in Tim Fugger, there’s a good amount of experience returning for the ‘Dores at defensive line, and the unit has reportedly had a good camp. The linebacking corps loses its multi-year leader in Chris Marve, but returns two of last year’s best tacklers from a unit that finished the year ranked better in run defense (36th) than Carolina. Then there’s experience, with five returning starters and all seven 2012 starters being upperclassmen (five seniors and two juniors).

That’s good, because they are entrusted with stopping arguably the best running back in the nation in Lattimore. This is Carolina’s only game on artificial turf, which coming off a knee injury gives one pause. But word out of Columbia has Lattimore back to his Herschel-esque form. Unfortunately for him and the Gamecocks, his primary backup Brandon Wilds is out for at least two more weeks with a sprained ankle. Lattimore also had one of his worst games statistically against the 'Dores last year - just 77 yards on 20 carries.

Even a slight home field advantage should provide an additional boost to stamina. As a result, we’ll call this front seven battle only a slight lean to SC, but far less than most might imagine. Both teams will sell out to control the defensive line of scrimmage, and they’ll likely both be successful. Which leads to…

PASSING ATTACKS

With both teams working to stop the run, this game will likely come down to the forward pass and who does it better. Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw did very well to close out the season against non-conference opponents. However he struggled as the season progressed against SEC foes. After a great start versus Kentucky, his passing efficiency rating dropped with each game, from Miss State (115), to Tennessee (103), to Arkansas (99), to Florida (90).

He’ll be going up against a Vandy secondary that replaces its star and team leader, cornerback Tim Hayward, along with strong safety Sean Richardson. However, all four starters are upperclassmen, and word out of Vandy’s preseason camp has been largely promising for the unit.

Additionally, there’s no more Alshon Jeffery to bail out Shaw when the latter gets in trouble. Gone to the NFL is the 6-4 Jeffery, who Shaw targeted last year on several hurried occasions with the football equivalent of a jump ball. Of his five primary receivers this year, most are under 5’9”, and only one is Alshon’s height – the by-any-definition underperforming D.L. Moore.

Expect to see senior tight end Justice Cunningham (6-4, 250 pounds) receive a lot of attention from Shaw…and the Vandy defense.

Like Shaw, Vandy signal caller Jordan Rodgers also took over the starting role mid-season, and is now the undisputed leader. The senior improved as the year went along, including passing for nearly 300 yards in Gainesville, a feat not seen by a Vandy quarterback since 2006. His main target in 2012, junior Jordan Matthews, became the first Vandy receiver in more than a decade to catch 100 or more yards in three consecutive games. All three starting receivers return, with Matthews and sophomore Chris Boyd both 6-4.

They’ll be going up against the weakest link on this SC team – its secondary. Last year, Carolina’s secondary was one of the nation’s best, but three of its stars are gone, and the aforementioned Holloman moves to linebacker. Additionally, starting cornerback and senior Akeem Auguste is out indefinitely with an injury to his right thigh. SC’s talented pass rushing defensive line must get pressure on Rodgers to protect this inexperienced secondary.

BOTTOM LINE

Its fan support notwithstanding, this is the Super Bowl for Vandy football. Don’t take my word for it – that’s a direct quote from its head coach, James Franklin. Vandy football is treating this game as the biggest of the season. It’s the first game of the year, which brings an energy of its own, but it’s unlikely SC had this game circled all summer long on its calendar of big games.

The Commodores lost four SEC heartbreakers in 2011, two that they arguably should have won (Arkansas and at Tennessee). Lacking in those close games was both confidence and experience with winning. That won’t be the case this year.

Of course, Lattimore can change all of this by sheer will. If the junior gets 28 or more carries, that likely means he’s being effective, and SC will win. If he’s 27 carries or less, look out.

If this game ultimately holds true to the form outlined herein…if both teams sell out and are effective in stopping the run…if it becomes a game of ball control, managing turnovers, and both quarterbacks trying to exert their will in a tight fourth quarter game, we’re picking Vandy in the upset.


Russ Mitchell is CFN's lead SEC Columnist. Follow Russ for SEC and CFB analysis @russmitchellcfb




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