Southeastern Conference newcomers Texas A&M and Missouri would like to upset one of the league’s media darlings at some point this year and the Tigers get another crack this weekend against the seventh-ranked Gamecocks after falling flat in a nationally-televised game against Georgia earlier this season.
A near double-digit underdog entering the game, Missouri’s fast-paced attack could cause problems for a defense missing one of its best players (safety D.J. Swearinger, suspension) that hasn’t fared well against the pass this season.
No one would argue against South Carolina’s defensive line being one of the best in the country with Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor, but its the Gamecocks’ youth-laden secondary that has room for improvement heading into the SEC home opener. South Carolina couldn’t get off the field defensively early on against UAB’s well-coached no-huddle over the weekend and gave up nearly 350 yards through the air to East Carolina the previous Saturday.
UAB won the time of possession battle by nearly 13 minutes but twice was stuffed on fourth down inside the South Carolina 10, a reflection of how tough the Gamecocks’ rush defense has been under first-year defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward. Thus far in 12 quarters, South Carolina has given up just two touchdowns (none in the red zone), both coming on broken coverages against the Commodores and Pirates. For Missouri to win its first-ever SEC road game, the Tigers will have to do it through the air with quarterbacks James Franklin and Corbin Berkstresser.
Berkstresser, a true freshman, played well in last week’s victory over Arizona State, subbing in for Franklin who sat out with a shoulder injury. Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said Franklin was in too much pain to play against the Sun Devils but should be ready for the Gamecocks. It was the first time Franklin missed a start in 15 games.
I’d say there’s a pressure factor going against the Gamecocks as well, especially since “The Georgia Game” which could decide the SEC East, looms in two weeks. Looking ahead would be dangerous. The Tigers and a road trip to Kentucky separates South Carolina from a 5-0 start, and perhaps, a Top 5 ranking. There’s a game every year it seems in which South Carolina is supposed to win and doesn’t.
This could be it.
Most of the country is picking South Carolina without looking at other variables. The Gamecocks dropped a home game to unranked Auburn in a similar early-season situation last year, disappointed the fanbase on the road against the Wildcats in 2010 (a week after the upset win over No. 1 Alabama) and struggled at Tennessee in defeat during Lane Kiffin’s only season in Knoxville.
Perhaps South Carolina has moved on from losing games it shouldn’t, but Missouri gets the Gamecocks at an ideal time. Sophomore quarterback Dylan Thompson, whose thrown five touchdown passes with no picks, likely gets his first SEC start against a Missouri defense that isn’t afraid to bring nine players to the line of scrimmage. South Carolina’s offensive line will have to improve as well and create more space for Marcus Lattimore to operate. Steve Spurrier hasn’t abandoned the zone-read offense, but Thompson’s a quarterback who is better suited in the pocket under a more traditional game plan. Lattimore’s been the cog each of the last two years in early-season SEC wins and he should continue to be the driving force as South Carolina enters its seven-week gauntlet.
All conference games are tough — home and away — and this one will be no different for the Gamecocks who are still trying to figure out who they are offensively despite back-to-back 500-yard outings. The Swearinger-less secondary should be on high alert for the first time this season against an offense that likes to throw it around. For the first time in four weeks, South Carolina’s quality of athletes will be comparable to the opposition.
Update on Connor Shaw:
Rather emphatically Tuesday, Steve Spurrier tabbed Connor Shaw as South Carolina’s starting quarterback for Saturday’s nationally-televised game against Missouri, putting an end to speculation involving the severity of Shaw’s injured shoulder he re-aggravated over the weekend against UAB.
“Connor’s fine,” Spurrier said. “There’s no issue there on who the starter is this week. He could’ve played the second half the other night if he had to.”
Spurrier said Shaw threw the ball well in Monday’s practice and is near full strength heading into the SEC home opener. Second-string quarterback Dylan Thompson’s numbers thus far this season — 5 touchdowns, 507 yards and no interceptions — raised questions as to whether or not there was a quarterback controversy brewing in Columbia. In consecutive home games, Thompson’s shown an ability to throw the deep ball with ease and has added a new dimension — through the air — to the Gamecocks’ run-based offense.
Spurrier never wavered, however, when backing Shawn and has praised the junior signal caller all season for last year’s success and his ability to make things happen out of the pocket. While Thompson has proved to be a viable backup according to Spurrier, Shaw is still South Carolina’s first-team quarterback without question.
“Connor’s a better passer than he’s shown,” Spurrier said. “He needs to take his steps and fire it in there a little better. Dylan can make all the throws, but Connor’s our starter.”