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Friday Preview: South Carolina

For the third time in twelve months.

The Good Guys: October is here. Or at least it’s a day away.

And along with it the toughest stretch of Auburn’s season; A grueling four-game run against some of the best competition the nation’s premier football conference has to offer, beginning tomorrow against South Carolina.

But with adversity comes opportunity — or at least that’s the way Auburn’s football team should be thinking right now. Indeed, a win on Saturday would appear to make up for the loss at Clemson entirely. For the team and fans alike, everything would reset back to zero, and the season, and everyone’s judgments and expectations, would begin anew. A win on the road against a top-ten opponent tomorrow would be so big for Auburn 2011 everything would be brought back to square one.

But it’s not going to be easy for Auburn to win.

Tigers vs. Gamecocks Part III is going to look a lot different than the previous two installments we’ve seen over the past calendar year. The first matchup of 2010 featured one team exploding onto the scene and using the game a springboard to a national championship run, while the other team was still finding their way, upsetting top-ranked Alabama in their next game but losing to Kentucky after that. In the second game, both teams were in their prime in a championship bout.

But on Saturday, for the first time in the recent series, South Carolina will be the one on top while Auburn is limping into the game. And, for the first time in these recent matches, the game is in South Carolina’s home turf.

This time around, all of the odds are stacked against Auburn.

The Bad Guys: This is more than a revenge game for South Carolina, despite what the media narrative would have you believe.

For the Gamecocks, defeating Auburn on Saturday would mean turning the corner for the football program as a whole. A win tomorrow would signify the slaying of the last ghost of 2010 for South Carolina before they can turn to making an all-time run in the program’s history in 2011.

But the context of what the win would mean in South Carolina’s season is just as important as the significance it would have to for the team internally. After Auburn the schedule brings them Kentucky, Mississippi State, and a bye week before a matchup against Tennessee in Week 9 — where the Gamecocks could easily be sitting at 7-0 and ranked among the top eight, maybe seven best teams in America. More importantly, they would be undefeated in SEC play before running through a stretch of Tennessee-Arkansas-Florida, and could be in a position to clinch the Eastern Division before even playing the No. 1 contender, the Gators.

And, yeah, beating down the guys that handed them two of their four losses last season would be pretty sweet revenge, too.

When South Carolina has the ball: This isn’t the usual Steve Spurrier fun-and-gun offense.

Instead, the Gamecocks boast a brutish ground game and a running back that leads the nation in rush attempts, and when South Carolina does throw the ball, it’s known for the physical play and large presence of its wide receivers.

That running back is, of course, sophomore Marcus Lattimore. Lattimore is South Carolina’s feature performer, and the success of the offense begins and ends with him, but he isn’t the only weapon the Gamecocks have on offense.

Their other main threat is junior wide receiver Alshon Jeffery, the preseason All-SEC selection and NFL Draft prospect. The Gamecocks, as they seem to have been for the past decade now, are quarterbacked by redshirt senior Stephen Garcia.

Auburn’s gameplan for tomorrow will begin with keying in on Lattimore and trying to slow him down. Lattimore is going to get a lot of carries on Saturday. When a defense isn’t capable of stopping him, South Carolina’s coaches are going to keep giving him the ball — just as they gave him 37 carries against an outmatched Navy defense two weeks ago. And there’s nothing the Auburn defense has shown to the South Carolina coaching staff thus far this season that proves they can stop him.

To have a chance at slowing down the best running back they’ll face all season, Auburn is going to have to play the best defense it has played all season. Auburn cannot play on their heels and sit back and play read-and-react against him. One of Lattimore’s most underrated strengths is his vision, and it has improved greatly with his experience over the last season. The way Lattimore sees the field, he isn’t going to go running into any defender’s arms. The defense is going to have to pursue him, right from the snap.

Just as the defense is trying to figure out Lattimore, Garcia will drop back and go over the top to Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery gashed the Auburn secondary for 192 yards and two touchdowns in their first meeting last season, and he accounted for one of South Carolina’s only two touchdowns in the SEC Championship Game later in the year.

No one man in the Auburn secondary matches up well against Jeffery, so the defense is prepared to play him by committee. Rotating different men to him and showing him new looks and tendencies will at least have Jeffery thinking when he isn’t catching passes all over Auburn’s secondary. The safeties are also going to have to come out from over the top to help out — that is, when they’re not moved in and trying to help slow down Lattimore.

But perhaps Auburn’s best chance at slowing down South Carolina’s receivers will not lie with the Tigers’ defensive backs and safeties, but with their defensive line. If Auburn can find a way to put consistent pressure on Stephen Garcia, they’ll have a good chance of throwing him off of his game. To say that the senior quarterback has struggled so far this season would be an understatement, as he has just 3 touchdowns and 7 interceptions to his credit through four games.

Getting to Garcia won’t be easy, however, as South Carolina’s offensive line starts three seniors and a junior against Auburn’s extremely young defensive line.

South Carolina’s options on offense aren’t limited by any means, but there are several key components that keep it clicking. Stopping Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery doesn’t mean you’re going to shut down the Gamecock offense — and putting all of your focus on Lattimore and Jeffery doesn’t mean you’re going to actually stop them, either. But Garcia did throw two interceptions last week while locking in on Alshon Jeffery, and South Carolina has been known to put a lot of their eggs in those two baskets.

So if Auburn somehow does, miraculously, find some way to stop either of the Gamecocks’ superstars on offense, then they do have a chance at making some stops Saturday.

When Auburn has the ball: You’re going to be impressed by South Carolina’s defensive line.

The Gamecocks’ defensive line is a talented, veteran group and is the spearhead of the South Carolina defense.

The strength of the unit begins on the outside. You’ve probably already heard a thing or two about superstar freshman defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, the nation’s consensus top prospect coming out of high school a year ago. Clowney already has four sacks on the season — one more than the entire Auburn defense has so far.

But Clowney isn’t the only player on that defensive line. In fact, he’s coming off the bench in their rotation. Ahead of him on the depth chart is senior Melvin Ingram, an anomaly at the position with three — count’em three — touchdowns on the year.

And as good as both of those guys are, the starter at the opposite defensive end, junior Devin Taylor, may be playing better football than both of them right now.

The defensive line, and specifically these defensive ends, are the strength of the South Carolina defense, and that will shine through on Saturday. South Carolina will do what it can to get its best players on the field. In nickel and dime, pass-rush situations, the Gamecocks will bring Clowney in at end and slide Ingram inside at defensive tackle. It’s a lethal combination that has produced a sack-fumble-scoop-and-score play twice this season, against Georgia and against Vanderbilt, as Ingram earned two of his touchdowns picking up fumbles forced by Clowney.

And to top it all off, this unit that is playing in peak condition early this season is going up against an Auburn offensive line that has been shuffled around and is still trying to find its way. That veteran group has to be licking their chops at the prospects of making some game-changing plays against Auburn’s young line.

This is the biggest mismatch of the game, on either side of the ball. The South Carolina defensive line vs. the Auburn offensive line could prove to be a major theme all afternoon.

Auburn can’t let them pin their ears back. To slow them down and make them a bit more hesitant, Auburn could use their wide receiver bubble screens to stretch the field horizontally, but they’re going to have to execute them to perfection, something they haven’t been able to do this season. Beyond that, the only thing that is going to push them back is some well-executed power runs by Auburn’s line and Mike Dyer. The Wildcat, running back slip screens, and the McCalebb draw are all going to be rendered ineffective by this quick, veteran defensive line.

The best chance Auburn will have at attacking the Gamecock defense is over that line’s heads through the air. No one throws the ball deep-middle quite like Auburn, and it does present a challenge for opposing defenses. Tomorrow, Auburn’s passing game is going to have to be a weapon and an asset if the Tigers are going to have any chance to win.

The line is going to have to protect Barrett Trotter on those long-developing passes though. It would be nice if Auburn had a Mario Fannin or another quality, third-down blocking back this season. It will be interesting to see what the offense is going to do in order to shore up protection against this defense.

Even through the air, Trotter and company are going to have to deal with junior cornerback Stephon Gilmore, who led the team in interceptions last season and is back at it again with one already this season.

South Carolina’s leading tackler is senior linebacker Antonio Allen.

Special Teams: Punt returner Ace Sanders is a threat to make a play every time he touches the ball for South Carolina. He’s already returned one punt for a touchdown this season, in the opener against Eastern Carolina.

Primary kickoff return man is hoopster Bruce Ellington, the starting point guard and leading scorer for Gamecocks basketball, who is in his first year of playing football for South Carolina as well.

South Carolina’s place kicker is Jay Wooten. Wooten is 2-for-3 on the year, but those two makes were the difference for South Carolina in their wins over Georgia and Navy this year.

It will be interesting to see if South Carolina allows Tre Mason to return any kickoffs for Auburn, and if Cody Parkey will be able to bounce back after missing a kick for the first time of the season last week. Auburn’s true freshman Quan Bray will also be in at punt returner for the Tigers, replacing an injured Trovon Reed.

Reason for Worry: If every single member of the South Carolina football team and its coaching staff hasn’t had this revenge game circled on their calendar, then they must not have calendars up there in Columbia. Auburn isn’t going to go in to Williams-Brice Stadium tomorrow and be overlooked or have a chance at catching the Gamecocks by surprise. South Carolina will be ready to play Saturday, and when they’re excited for a game, they usually play extremely well — just see the game against Georgia this year and the games against Alabama, Florida, and Georgia last year for examples. Auburn is going to get their best shot, and South Carolina’s best shot is usually a good one.

Reason for Confidence: I mentioned that South Carolina usually plays well in big games — just not against Auburn. Taking the Gamecocks’ collosal flop in the SEC Championship Game last year as evidence enough alone, the misfortune against Auburn also appears to extend to head coach Steve Spurrier, who hasn’t beaten Auburn since the year 2000. Auburn is 5-0 against Spurrier-coached Florida and South Carolina teams over the last decade.

Three Wishes

1. Be physical. On defense, Auburn’s linemen and linebackers are going to have to play strong and hit Lattimore, and its defensive backs and safeties are going to have to be stout and physical with Alshon Jeffery. On the other side of the ball, physical play in the trenches on run and pass plays can knock the South Carolina pass-rush defensive ends off of their game. Auburn’s defensive line is going to need to push South Carolina’s offensive line back, and put some pressure on Garcia on pass plays and cause disruption for Lattimore and company in their running game.

2. Stay ahead of the chains. Auburn can’t be behind the chains on offense, in 3rd-and-seven-type situations, letting their pass rushers pin their ears back and pound on Barrett Trotter. And on defense Auburn has to play well enough on first and second downs to avoid giving the Gamecocks too many 3rd-and-shorts, which would seem to be automatic conversions for Lattimore against Auburn’s rush defense. If Auburn can force them into 3rd-and-long situations, South Carolina’s best offensive weapon, Lattimore, will be rendered useless and Auburn’s defense will have a good chance at making some stops and getting off of the field.

3. Stay in the game. Auburn can’t let this thing get out of hand early and let it turn into a celebration for the Gamecocks. If Auburn can stretch this game to four quarters, and if they can keep making South Carolina work for 60 minutes, they could have a shot at pulling off the big upset on the road. If Auburn can stay in it, and be in a position where it’s anyone’s game with five minutes left, you never know what could happen when you have an offense like Auburn’s. If it comes down to the wire, Auburn’s no-huddle passing attack will be right at home, while South Carolina’s bruising ground-and-pound offense would be left ineffective and in uncomfortable territory.

The Prediction

South Carolina remains unbeaten and untied going into this contest, but the Gamecocks aren’t without their weaknesses.

They’ve had struggles with the quarterback position throughout the season, and are coming off their sloppiest performance of the year last week against Vanderbilt.

But despite facing second-half deficits in each of their first three games, the Gamecocks rallied to win each of those, and even after playing very poorly and to near-self-destruction last week, they still ended up beating a then 3-0 Vanderbilt team by 18 points.

South Carolina is the real deal in 2011, and it should show on Saturday.

But Auburn will come to compete. In fact, while I know all too well about Auburn’s struggles in all phases of the game so far this season, I do think the Tigers could have the potential to play straight up with the Gamecocks, even beat them.

But the timing is just all off.

South Carolina is primed to hit their midseason stride tomorrow while Auburn will still be fumbling around with their fundamentals. Auburn is going to have to make a lot of improvements before they are capable of winning big time road games such as this one. They weren’t ready two weeks ago in their first visit to the Palmetto State at Clemson, and they just haven’t shown that major improvement — yet.

It will be interesting to see tomorrow if Auburn can show potential to turn this thing around and make this season into a memorable one all on its own, or if the South Carolina game is truly just going to be the beginning of an October-long nightmare.

Just as important as the end result on Saturday will be the potential that these Tigers show for the future — near or far.

The Prediction

Auburn 20, South Carolina 35

Photo via.

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