College football season is only two days away, and that means that year two of the James Franklin era is nearly upon us. The Commodores will start their season with a chance to avenge a 21-3 loss at the hands of South Carolina, and you can be sure that the team has been studying tape in order to avoid an embarrassment to start 2012. Despite intercepting Stephen Garcia four times that game, Vanderbilt was held to just 77 yards of offense in a contest that was more closely related to the Robbie Caldwell era than anything else Franklin and his crew have done in Nashville.
We may not have access to the scouting reports and gametape that the Vandy staff do, but we do have an important ace in the hole to help the fans prepare for Thursday's showdown. The good chaps at Garnet and Black Attack were kind enough to run through a whole set of previews with us for the season opener. Today, we'll break down some questions with site manager Gamecock Man in a home-and-home Q&A series. His responses are below, while you can find my side of things over at GaBA here:
1. Marcus Lattimore looked like the truth last season before going down with a knee injury. How has he looked in the preseason, what kind of performance are you expecting from him, and how vital a role will he play in the Gamecock offense this season?
Preseason performance has been promising. He's clearly still the best tailback on the team, even if he's only at 80% or so. However, there have been many moments when he's looked like his old self, even in full contact, so it's possible that he's 100% or close to it. As far as his worth to the team goes, USC proved that it could win last year without him, but his value can't be downplayed. Having Lattimore back in the mix, along with the now-stabilized QB situation, will hopefully be the ingredient that will take this offense to the next level. If he's truly 100%, the sky is the limit for this offense.
One thing that I will say is that Vanderbilt is in a good position here because it gets a green Lattimore. Regardless of how healthy his knee really is, you know that he's wondering how full-on contact will feel after being out for so long. Oftentimes for this reason, mentally recovering from an injury is just as much of a challenge as the physical recovery. I could see Lattimore struggling a bit in this game for that reason. In an ideal world, we would be playing a tune-up game this week that would give Lattimore a little space to ease back into his role, but since this will probably be a close game, that won't be possible.
2. Your secondary will have to regroup without Stephon Gilmore holding things down. At the same time, Vanderbilt has put together their best core of receivers in...well, possibly ever. Who will be the latest standout CB to make his bones in Columbia, and is there any concern about the defensive backfield in 2012?
In my opinion, the defensive backfield, particularly the CB situation, is South Carolina's biggest question mark right now. Victor Hampton
will start at boundary corner, and he's going to be a good one. Looked solid in the playing time he got in the second half of last season, and has reportedly improved tremendously in the off-season. However, at field corner, we're starting Jimmy Legree
in place of the injured Akeem Auguste. Legree struggled in the two games he started at safety last year, and while he's always been a better corner, he's still unproven in a starting role at the position. I think his performance is the single biggest key to whether South Carolina has (or doesn't have) a decent defense this year, particularly since it's quite possible that Auguste will never make it back. And heaven forbid we lose Hampton or Legree to injury.
The good news in the defensive backfield is that we're solid at safety. D.J. Swearinger
is a likely All-SEC performer, and while Brison Williams is somewhat unproven, he's shown flashes and should be ready to shoulder a bigger load this year. We also have better depth at these positions than at corner.
3. Without Stephen Garcia around, which SC player is now the most likely to try to break tackles by ramming his head through them?
Lattimore? It's not Shaw, that's for sure. Although he'll run a good bit, Shaw is very conscious of avoiding too much contact.
4. Connor Shaw recently left practice with back spasms just a week before the season opener. Are there any concerns about his health heading into the game? If he can't start, how much does that effect South Carolina's chances to win? And how will Shaw be able to cope without a surefire target like Alshon Jeffery downfield?
Shaw is reportedly fine and will start. (My limited medical knowledge tells me that back spasms indicate an underlying issue, but what do I know? We're talking very limited medical knowledge here.) If he wasn't able to start, I'm not sure how it would effect the game. Backup QB Dylan Thompson is reportedly much improved, but in the land of Steve Spurrier, if Thompson isn't prompting talk of a QB controversy, we can probably assume a huge drop off from him to Shaw. Again, though, Shaw should be fine.
It's not clear to me how much it will hurt us not to have Jeffery. We have a deep receiving corps with some nice talents, but no go-to guy of Jeffery's stature. However, whereas Garcia heavily relied on Jeffery because Garcia wasn't good at working his options, Shaw has proven to be a good distributor who runs through his reads well and prefers to find an open man rather than throwing jump balls to his best guy. Perhaps not having a go-to guy won't hurt us too much, and we'll do well with the WR committee approach. It's also good to know that we have a deep stable of tight ends who can help the passing game. Spurrier is reportedly going to run some two-TE sets this year, as he feels that an extra end gives us a better threat than an extra receiver, given the current crop of players. The bigger lineup with multiple ends should help the running game, too.
This is all to say that I'm not too worried about the passing game. QB play should be much improved over a year ago, and we do have some receiving options. Throw in a healthy Lattimore, and you've got a solid overall offense that features running and passing games that feed off each other.
5. And finally, your prediction. Or rather, A) What's the USC homer prediction? and B) What's your personal prediction, if it's any different?
I've seen USC homers predicting three and four TD victories. I'm not seeing that. I expect USC to pull this one out, but I think it will be a close game with a fair bit of offense. Rodgers throws for good yardage and three TDs after Vandy's coaches figure out how to somewhat negate USC's pass rush, but Vandy's defensive front is never able to handle Lattimore and Shaw on the ground, and USC has a long drive late in the game for the go-ahead score. Let's say 35-28 USC.