Saturday could be the biggest day of Austyn Carta-Samuels's college football career. A big showing against the Gamecocks could prove that he belongs in the SEC's top tier of quarterbacks.
He has a lot to prove in Columbia. The senior signal caller has started three games in his Vanderbilt tenure, but just one game against an FBS opponent. That one game also happened to be his best as a Commodore, as he threw for 300 yards and a pair of touchdowns (along with two interceptions that arguably weren't his fault). In a very brief SEC career, he's risen to the occasion against conference foes.
Can he do it again versus South Carolina?
Guiding Vanderbilt to a win over the Gamecocks would mark Carta-Samuels's arrival in the SEC. It only took him one game as the team's undisputed starter to throw for more yards than Jordan Rodgers ever had in a single game before him. However, his performance got lost in the washout of a heartbreaking loss. Jordan Matthews got the credit that he deserved for carrying this team on that humid August night, but ACS came on strong after a slow start (274 yards in the final three quarters) and incorporated an often underused Jonathan Krause into the passing game to move the 'Dores downfield.
With that showing, Carta-Samuels proved that he can handle quarterback duties at Vanderbilt, even with a shallow receiving corps. Maybe we got spoiled by a season and a half of Jordan Rodgers's play (and 11 wins), but just that element of stability alone is something that is extremely valuable at Vanderbilt. You don't have to look far back in this team's history to see how negatively a quarterback carousel has affected the Commodores. Teams in the Chris Nickson/Mackenzi Adams/Larry Smith era went 16-36 against FBS programs and scored just 14.5 points per game during league play in that span.
Carta-Samuels doesn't have to be Jay Cutler; he just needs to keep doing what he's doing. In two games this season, he's shown that he can stand in the pocket when pressure comes, deliver clutch throws when the clock is winding down, and find his receivers with the deep ball. That pressure is going to be dialed up to 10 against a very athletic Carolina defense. He'll have to prove that he can adjust in the pocket without making mistakes on the fly.
Saturday's game against South Carolina is a big one for ACS. In fact, it could be the defining moment of his Vanderbilt career. For now, however, it'll just be the litmus test that lets Commodore fans know if he can rise to the occasion and be the Rodgers-like presence the 'Dores need, or if he'll float down to the Nickson/Adams/Smith level. Based on the little bit we've seen so far, I'd bet on the former.
Christian D'Andrea: Vanderbilt hasn't beaten South Carolina in the last four years after toppling the ranked Gamecocks for big upset wins in 2007 and 2008. In fact, those are the only two times that Vandy has beaten USC this millennium. That's a pretty awful piece of history, but James Franklin has made it a point to ignore history behind his "six seconds at a time" philosophy. The Commodores won't let Carolina's recent dominance get in their heads before this one.
However, South Carolina's ability to thrive where Vanderbilt is the weakest just may. Vanderbilt's offensive line will be put to the test by a defensive front that doesn't just feature All-World end Jadeveon Clowney, but also Chaz Sutton (five sacks in 2012), and a young, athletic linebacking corps led by Kaiwan Lewis, Skai Moore, and Marcquis Roberts. Those are five guys who can get upfield in a hurry, and that will put one of the deepest Commodore lines in the past decade to the test. Vandy's blocking has been hit-or-miss early in their games this season, and that's been a big part of this team's slow starts. If they can't hit the field in Columbia ready to play, then South Carolina could end up with a big advantage in the first half.
More importantly, the Gamecocks have a mobile quarterback who can shred a Commodore defense that is solid in every aspect except stopping the read option. Conor Shaw cut Vandy up for 92 yards on the ground in last year's season opener, and many of those yards came after he could barely lift his shoulder over his head to throw downfield. Bob Shoop's defense should have known that he was going to run the ball often, but still failed to keep him from leading USC to victory with his feet.
Now, Shaw is healthy and he's got an All-SEC caliber tailback to take the pressure off of him in the backfield. Stopping Mike Davis is a big enough task on its own, but handling double duty to spy Shaw when he pulls the ball back and takes off past the line of scrimmage is something that will give this team trouble. Vanderbilt's defense has a great record of bending but holding tough in the red zone - but athletic quarterbacks can break that streak, especially as these guys get tired.
Add in homefield advantage, and I don't see the Commodores winning this one. I think we'll see plenty of positive pieces - Jordan Matthews and Jordan Cunningham pulling down big passes, a strong performance from Jerron Seymour, and some stout defensive plays - but it ultimately won't be enough.
The Pick? South Carolina 27, Vanderbilt 23.
SEC Upset Pick of the Week: Ole Miss over TEXAS. I think every Vanderbilt fan who saw this year's season opener believes in the Rebels, and they'll be just 2.5-point underdogs against Mack Brown's team in Austin. Mississippi has the balance to win on both sides of the ball, but a hostile road crowd could rattle some of their younger players. Fortunately for Hugh Freeze, Longhorn fans may be a bit subdued after last week's loss to BYU.
Unfortunately, this week is a bad one for upset picks. Look at the other options out there: Kent State and LSU? Tennessee against Oregon? Johnny Football versus the world? Of the league's matchups, the Longhorn/Rebel showdown in Austin is the most competitive of the lot. Mississippi isn't much of an underdog this weekend - in fact, they're the ranked program out of the two - but they still need to prove that they can beat a big name program before they become a hot darkhorse pick in the SEC.