No one wants to admit it, but across the country, everyone is secretly intrigued by Thursday’s Vanderbilt-South Carolina matchup. Can Derek Mason push the Commodores toward bowl eligibility in year three? Is Kyle Shurmur for real? Will Will Muschamp dissolve into a puddle of his own rage?
These two teams will kick off the SEC season by sending one program into the league’s doghouse and establishing the other as a potential spoiler in a competitive SEC East race. The Commodores are in year three of a complete overhaul under head coach Derek Mason. South Carolina, on the other hand, may be building its own after last year’s abrupt retirement of Steve Spurrier. In his place, defensive mind Muschamp is ready to prove his worth as a leader of men on the gridiron.
To get a better idea of what an unpredictable Gamecock team may have in store, we turned to an expert. James Shahid is a Staff Writer over at Garnet and Black Attack, SB Nation’s home for all things South Carolina. He was kind enough to answer our questions on all things USC.
1. South Carolina wound up where Vandy had the past two seasons -- watching a quarterback race unfold throughout the preseason. Freshman Jake Bentley looks the part of a starting SEC QB, but he'll have to outplay last year's starter (and Johnny McCrary simulation) Perry Orth and fellow freshman Brandon McIlwain. As of Monday, we're still without a starter -- so how has the race played out this summer, who do you want to lead this offense in 2016, and what can we expect from the Gamecocks' passing offense this fall?
James Shahid: Don't expect to know who the starter will be until right before kickoff. Will Muschamp deems the secrecy to be an advantage, which is true to extent. I think Vanderbilt, much like South Carolina supporters, expects to see at least two QB's take the field in the game, and likely early - Orth and McIlwain. Personally, I think it'll happen in that order.
I want McIlwain to be the starter. That doesn't mean he has to start the opener, and it might be best for him not to. But, for us to compete in the league, we need a guy with his versatility to serve as another playmaking threat on offense. We don't have enough weapons around the QB position to expect to be able to dump it off to someone else and have him make the play, and that's mainly what Orth serves as.
The talent gap just between Orth and McIlwain suggests the freshman should get the nod, and he likely will at some point, we just don't know when. We haven't seen enough consistently with McIlwain's arm this preseason, which is why he hasn't seperted himself from the pack, but hopefully it'll come with time and his athleticism can work him through the hiccups.
After all that I never mentioned Jake Bentley. And from what Will Muschamp is telling us with his pre game depth chart, he has an equal chance of trotting out there snap #1. So, what do I know?
If Muschamp could clone all three candidates into one, he would, and he'd have a Heisman-capable QB in his laboratory. He can't. So, much like we were accustomed to with Steve Spurrier, we'll all be undecided until someone proves he's the man on the field.
2. The Gamecocks lost arguably the heart of soul of their defense when Skai Moore was lost for the season due to a neck injury. Who will step up to fill his void as a leader?
JS: There's no argument. Skai Moore was the heart of the defense, and hopefully will be next year. That said, he's not there today and we have to play 12 games without him. Filling the void will be by committee throughout the year, and thankfully our linebacking core was one of the strongest and most experienced units entering the offseason even though it's taken some hits this summer.
As for Thursday expect to hear a lot from Bryson Allen-Williams, Jonathon Walton and T.J. Holloman, with who I think, Allen-Williams leading the way.
3. Will Muschamp will coach his first game with South Carolina on Thursday. While no one questions his defensive chops, what has his early impact on the Gamecock offense been? With two great defensive head coaches battling it out, what are the odds we head into the third overtime of the opener tied 6-6? And now that head coaches can be ejected from games, who do you expect to take over once Muschamp gets tossed for excoriating a referee's mother after a questionable no-call on a hold?
JS: See here for my prediction of Will Muschamp penalties this season. Over / under .5 games for him to get his first?
In terms of defensive struggles, I fully expect this game to be one of the ugliest attempts at football in recent memory. No offense Vandy-Florida 2015, our hearts were racing. I'd be surprised if we saw more than 20 combined points.
As for the offense, Muschamp's biggest impact may be the staff he has assembled for it. Some would argue, including Muschamp himself, that if he hired offensive coordinator Kurt Roper from the start at Florida, he'd still be there. That's wishful thinking, but it's also solace for an individual like myself searching for any and every silver lining.
4. The popular narrative behind USC's 2016 is that it will be a rebuilding year. Does it make sense to write off Carolina's bowl hopes this winter? What will they need to do, aside from beating Vandy, to make this season a success?
JS: In short, yes. If I wasn't a hopeless optimistic, like well, every South Carolina fan, I would think there's no chance we make it to a bowl game. But, this is the life I live and anything else just wouldn't feel natural.
I think the first four games of the year, and most importantly, this opener, will greatly shape how the rest of the season unfolds. The game between the two last season wasn't the prettiest, but it was a win nonetheless, and a meaningful one for the Gamecocks. It kind of brought everything back together after watching Spurrier walk away, even though the rest of the season don't play out like we wanted.
If South Carolina can salvage a 2-2 start with three of those games on the road in the SEC, it'll rejuvenate the fanbase just enough to bring some fear back into Williams-Brice to serve as a legit home field advantage during a five-game home stand in the middle of the season.
5. With Pharoh Cooper, Brandon Wilds, and Shon Carson departed, who are the big play threats who can crack the Commodore defense?
JS: Deebo Samuel. Everyone's expecting a break out year from the sophomore receiver and anything short could lead to vast struggles for the offense. He has a lot of pressure to serve as the main threat to let some of the younger, less experienced player makers blossom around him. We're all just kind of sitting around hoping he has a little Pharoh in him.
6. Finally, what's your prediction for Thursday's showdown
JS: I alluded to this earlier, but I don't think it'll be the most riveting match-up. That doesn't mean it won't be exciting. Much like the opener last season, I see South Caroline making that one extra play on offense to squeak out of Nashville with a W.