On Saturday, South Carolina showed that they can play with anybody. In a game that has been anything but understated, South Carolina had their long awaited coming out party as an upper echelon SEC team by beating the #1 ranked Alabama Crimson Tide by two touchdowns.
475 miles away, in Lexington, Kentucky, another team was making a statement. As the clock wound down on a last second loss to eighth ranked Auburn, the Kentucky Wildcats were sending a warning to the South Carolina Gamecocks: “We too can play with anybody.”
When the two teams come together on Saturday night in Lexington, there will be two completely different teams; one team desperate to earn respect, and the other desperate to maintain it.
To the casual observer, South Carolina shouldn’t have any trouble with a struggling Kentucky team. After all, Kentucky is 0-3 in conference play, and only beat a 3-2 Louisville team by a touchdown. What’s more, Kentucky’s other two wins came against teams that remain winless this season. On its face, this game looks to be nothing but a tune up for the Gamecocks.
But in the SEC, there are no easy games. Kentucky is coming off a contest in which they scored thirty-four points against the #8 team in the country. With just over 1400 yards, Mike Hartline leads all SEC passers not named Ryan Mallett. Of the top ten highest grossing receivers in the league, two wear Kentucky blue: Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews. Derrick Locke is, statistically, the third best running back in the conference, with 574 yards on 108 carries and 7 touchdowns. This offense is explosive.
Even with all of this firepower, the Wildcat’s defense, or lack therof, has plagued the team all year. Coach Steve Brown’s club gave up 31 points to Auburn last Saturday, in the first half. The bright silver lining? The eighth ranked Tigers failed to score a touchdown in the second half. The Leviathan, Danny Trevathan, the Wildcats junior linebacker, recorded 17 tackles that night, which can only be troubling to Gamecock faithful.
Make no mistake about it though, South Carolina is the real deal. Marcus Lattimore, the unstoppable Gamecock ball carrier, already has 9 touchdowns and 459 yards. Perhaps the most impressive player in garnet and black is Alshon Jeffery, a 6-4 233 pound sophomore wide out that has been good for 34 catches and four touchdowns this season. Only one SEC receiver has more touchdowns: Kentucky’s Chris Matthews.
The much maligned South Carolina quarterback Stephen Garcia has the highest quarterback rating is the league, throwing eight touchdowns and only three picks. On the defensive side of the ball, two Gamecock D-linemen, Antoine Carter and Melvin Ingram, each average 3.5 sacks a game, and Rodney Paulk averages another 2.5 sacks.
In the battle for field position, Kentucky’s Ryan Tydlacka averages 46.1 yards per punt. South Carolina’s Spencer Lanning? 46.1.
So sure, the storyline indicates that this game will be anything but competitive. South Carolina looks to be the lead dog in the East, and Kentucky looks to be the yard dog of league. But don’t buy into the hype, friends. This one will be far from lopsided. Much will depend on the status of Kentucky’s Derrick Locke, who is currently listed as questionable following a shoulder stinger on Saturday. If he plays, look for Kentucky to run with the Gamecocks all night. If he sits, Kentucky plays good back up Donald Russell and has a chance. The professionals and Vegas will have Carolina winning this game, probably by a touchdown and a field goal. My pick: it will be much closer than that.