Vanderbilt's 2013 season has had its ups and downs so far, but the true indicator of whether or not the Commodores are a top 25 team will come this Saturday when they face #13 South Carolina on the road. So far, the 'Dores have lost a heartbreaker to Ole Miss and laid a requisite beating on Austin Peay, but several questions still remain. Can Austyn Carta-Samuels carry this team's offense for four straight quarters? Can the Vandy defense stop a mobile quarterback? They'll have trouble with both when they face the Gamecocks this weekend.
In order to better prepare for this pivotal matchup, we enlisted the help of one guy who knows South Carolina football better than almost anyone else. Gamecock Man is one of the managers of Garnet and Black Attack, SBNation's source for South Carolina sports. He was helpful enough to drop in for a Q&A exchange to preview Saturday's game. My half of the Vanderbilt preview can be found here. Gamecock Man's answers about Carolina can be found below.
1. Jadeveon Clowney is all everyone wants to talk about, but he hasn't had a distinct impact so far this season. How are opposing teams gameplanning around him? How can he inject himself into more plays even when teams are doing their best to avoid them?
UNC and Georgia largely schemed around Clowney. Georgia ran the vast majority of its running plays to the opposite side of the field. Most of Georgia's passing plays were quick-release, which kept Clowney from having time to get into the backfield. It helped that Georgia ran the ball so well against us that it didn't have to throw downfield much (few third-and-long situations). Georgia also double-teamed Clowney a lot with either two linemen, a lineman and a TE, or a lineman and a fullback or running back. It definitely helped that Georgia has such an excellent fullback in Quayvon Hicks.
One of the things that's hurt South Carolina's defense is that other players haven't stepped up and made plays when UNC and Georgia have avoided or double-teamed Clowney. For instance, if Georgia's going to run the ball to the opposite side of the field each time, you have to rely on the other defensive end to defend the run well. Last year, Devin Taylor was our other defensive end, and he was great against the run. This year, it's Chaz Sutton, a good pass rusher but someone who's not as strong against the run. Georgia exploited that weakness.
In that sense, one thing South Carolina needs right now is for the other players to step up and help Clowney. You may also see South Carolina move Clowney around a lot to try to keep Vandy guessing where he's coming from. It's harder to gameplan for him on each play if you don't know where he's going to line up.
2. Vanderbilt has been hot garbage against the read option in 2012 and 2013. Conor Shaw is a mobile guy who gouged this team for nearly 100 yards on the ground last season. Can we expect to see him taking some designed runs for the Gamecocks on Saturday?
Yes. Shaw is the healthiest he's been since the first half of last year's game in Nashville, and so far this season, Spurrier has called his name plenty of times on QB draws, and Shaw seems more eager to keep the ball on the zone-read. He's rushed for well over 100 yards so far on the year, including over 70 against Georgia. I expect he'll the run the ball a lot this weekend.
3. Mike Davis has exceeded expectations in his first year as USCe's go-to tailback this fall. Tell us how he differs from Marcus Lattimore and what he brings to the Gamecock offense.
For many around the SEC, Davis is a new name, but he was actually a very highly touted recruit in the 2012 class, ranked by Rivals as the seventh-best tailback and among the top 100 players in the country. It just took him time to break into the starting spot given South Carolina's depth at the position last year, and coming into this season, he was under the radar in a conference featuring backs such as Todd Gurley and T.J. Yeldon.
Lattimore's greatest strengths were his vision and balance. He always seemed to make the right cuts, and he had an uncanny ability to brace himself for a hit and then get a few more yards than you expected. Davis has yet to match Lattimore in these departments, but Davis has better speed (he already has two 70+-yard runs), and he's a more violent, powerful runner who breaks tackles by running over defenders as opposed to taking hits well. The concerns for Davis coming into the season were pass-blocking and receiving, two areas where Lattimore excelled. Davis has done really well in the passing game so far this year, though, indicating that he may, like Lattimore, be a complete back.
4. South Carolina has been a hotbed in terms of grooming NFL cornerbacks and has consistently put together one of the best secondaries in the SEC over the last decade. However, the Gamecocks are giving up more than 250 yards per game through the air in 2013, and they'll face one of the NCAA's best receivers in Jordan Matthews. What has been the problem with SC's pass defense so far, and do you think that Steve Spurrier will be able to take Matthews and the Vandy aerial attack out of the game?
Honestly, I'd be surprised if Matthews doesn't catch for over 100 yards. The guy is an amazing receiver who racks up catch after catch even though opposing defenses know where the ball is going. I love his game.
That said, I'm optimistic that our pass defense improves over the course of the year. Both starting corners (Vic Hampton and Jimmy Legree; Hampton was suspended for the first half against UGA) are experienced. They're both considered good cover guys; Hampton is a solid NFL prospect. They're better than they looked last week. Ahmad Christian is the third corner, and he was involved in some broken coverages last week, but he's got a lot of potential. The safeties were also involved in some broken coverages against UGA, but there's potential there, too.
I'm not sure how much you can take away from the 250 yards passing per game. UNC moved the ball in the air a bit, but mostly through a lot of dink-and-dunk passing. They had a lot of drives that gained some yards but ultimately stalled out because they were unwilling to take their shots downfield. Georgia has one of the, if not the, best offenses in the conference, and no other team in the SEC East is likely to have the kind of offensive success against us that they did.
5. South Carolina has been a first half team this season, while Vanderbilt has been extremely sluggish to start their contests this year. Is a big first quarter paramount to the 'Cocks success on Saturday?
I'm not sure how much stock I'd put into the fact that South Carolina looks like a first-half team after two games. Against UNC, South Carolina dialed it in later in the game and just decided to get out with a win instead of pushing the ball down field. Against UGA, South Carolina moved the ball extremely well in the second half but turned the ball over in the red zone on one drive and turned it over on downs on the goal line on another. I'm not sure I'd conclude South Carolina can't produce in the second half just yet. As a run-first team, we might prove to be a good second-half team.
I do think first-half success is important in this game for South Carolina, though. Coming off a loss, South Carolina needs to build momentum early, just like Georgia did last week. If South Carolina finds itself in a really close game against Vandy in the fourth quarter, some anxiety might start to kick in.
6. Last year's matchup between these two teams had the promise of a shootout, but ended up being a sloppy affair. Do you see this game turning into a defensive battle between two teams that struggle to move the chains?
Based on what we've seen so far, I'm expecting a relatively high-scoring game. Last year's game wasn't representative because it was the first game of the season and both teams were a bit sloppy. This year, the game is later in the season, both teams have settled in, and we know both have good offenses. Neither defense, on the other hand, has inspired a lot of confidence.
7. Finally, what's your prediction for this weekend's game?
34-24 South Carolina. Vandy puts up a tough fight but loses to a more talented team. I'd be a lot more concerned about this game if it were in Nashville.