Position-by-position edge: South Carolina vs. Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt is looking to end its recent string of sub-par season openers, while South Carolina looks to open the Will Muschamp era on a positive note. The teams have a few things in common, most notably limited experience at quarterback, where there’s also a dose of optimism.
Here’s a detailed look at how they match up for their opener Thursday night in Nashville (8 p.m., ET, ESPN):
When South Carolina has the ball
QBs Perry Orth/Brandon McIlwain vs. Vanderbilt pass defense: Muschamp admitted at his Monday press conference that he will play two quarterbacks, but would not disclose the starter. Orth offers more experience and a steady hand, while the more athletic McIlwain has the potential to put more pressure on a defense.
Vanderbilt had a strong 2015, but then safety Oren Burks moved to linebacker, and Andrew Williamson graduated, so insert Emmanuel Smith and Ryan White at safety. Smith played in 11 games last year, started two, and finished with 10 tackles.
This looks to be White’s second straight start against South Carolina (after he had six solo tackles last year), and he was named a postseason co-captain for special teams last season. He also had 26 tackles, 2.5 for a loss, an interception at Florida and fumble recovery against Middle Tennessee.
RBs A.J. Turner/David Williams vs. run defense — The Gamecocks’ running back depth chart has been one of the more surprising developments of the preseason, as Williams, the presumed starter, lost his job, but appears to be back in the good graces of the coaching staff.
It will likely be a committee approach after Williams started four games last year, but Turner is a relative unknown following a redshirt season and a high school wrist injury that caused him to miss time.
South Carolina ran for 152 yards in a 19-10 win against Vandy last season.
Vanderbilt, meanwhile, may have its deepest defensive line under Mason, which is expected to bolster a defense that was No. 33 in the country against the run last year.
WR Deebo Samuel vs. pass defense — Samuel has the tools for a big game against a top opponent after he had five catches for 104 yards and a touchdown against Clemson. But he also has dealt with a prolonged hamstring injury that caused him to miss seven games last season, and several days to start this preseason.
He’ll draw Tre Herndon or Torren McGaster, a couple of upperclassmen. McGaster had 13 pass breakups last season.
Edge: South Carolina
When Vanderbilt has the ball
QB Kyle Shurmur vs. pass defense: The Gamecocks’ depth took a hit in recent days with the departure of Rico Williams, but the starting secondary appears to be Chaz Elder, D.J. Smith, Chris Lammons and Rashad Fenton.
Shurmur won the job after a competition with Wade Freebeck, even after he generally played well down the stretch last season when he started five of six games.
Perhaps most notably, he passed for a career-high 209 yards and three touchdowns against Tennessee. The Gamecocks have some experience on the back line, but Shurmur appears to have the temperament along with just enough weapons to make a difference.
RB Ralph Webb vs. run defense: Webb used to be one of the most underrated players in the SEC, but that seemingly disappears with each week. Webb has 2,059 yards in two seasons. He’s on track to become Vandy’s career leader, and he’s also proven to be durable as he’s played in 24 games.
He’ll face a defensive line that is less experienced than last year, when he was held to just 58 yards. That was his worst performance against an SEC team.
Even without Skai Moore, USC’s linebackers could be a strength, led by T.J. Holloman and Bryson Allen-Williams, but a big season is expected out of defensive lineman Marquavius Lewis after he struggled last season.
WR Trent Sherfield vs. pass defense: Sherfield was Vanderbilt’s top receiving target last season, and was consistent with seven catches at Ole Miss, six at Middle Tennessee and six at Tennessee. He had 51 catches for 659 yards and three TDs, but just two for 18 yards against the Gamecocks in 2015. Fenton and Lammons will draw the assignment.
Vandy’s passing game is expected to get a boost, too, with the return of C.J. Duncan, who missed last season after catching 28 balls for 441 yards and four scores in 2014.
Duncan was listed first on the depth chart, but new Vanderbilt special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk has put Webb in the preseason rotation at kick returner. While Webb has never returned a kick, he’s easily among the team’s best athletes, but he’s not alone back there.
Darrius Sims, another option, returned two kick returns for touchdowns against South Carolina in 2014.
The Gamecocks have their own notable kick returners, including Fenton, who returned a kick 96 yards for a TD last year at LSU. He was fourth in the league last season in kick return average at 26.07 yards. The Gamecocks’ punter, Sean Kelly, is expected to play after a recent arrest when he was charged with public disorderly conduct. Kelly was fourth in the SEC last season with a personal-best 44.3 yard average.
South Carolina has a decisive edge in field goal kicking. Vandy still hasn’t settled on a starter after Tommy Openshaw made just 12 of 19 kicks last year. South Carolina’s Elliott Fry was 20 for 28.
Edge: South Carolina