South Carolina aims to back up newfound hype on road at LSU
In the span of roughly seven hours last Saturday, the power structure of the SEC shifted completely. The signs had been shining through for weeks, but the shadow cast by preseason expectations continued to dictate the rankings. Two scoreboards, located 360 miles apart, put an end to any lingering illusions.
The Gamecocks -- the same Gamecocks who have never won an SEC championship -- suddenly became BCS title contenders. And the Tigers -- the same Tigers who had won 19 of their last 20 games dating back to the 2010 season -- suddenly found themselves desperate for a victory.
Now comes the next chapter. South Carolina will visit Tiger Stadium Saturday for a showdown that should further clarify the 2012 conference pecking order. Here's a breakdown of that prime time matchup.
Looking at South Carolina's schedule, this game matters less than the Oct. 20 trip to Gainesville. The latter could decide the fate of the SEC East, as the Gamecocks and Gators will compete for the inside track to Atlanta.
But Saturday's game should offer a different type of drama. When South Carolina and LSU kick off, we'll get a feel for whether the teams are as good and as bad, respectively, as they looked last weekend.
Both squads are anchored by premier pass rushers, as LSU boasts Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo and South Carolina fields Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor. Both teams feature top-notch running games and an arsenal of defensive playmakers: Tigers linebacker Kevin Minter tallied 20 tackles and two sacks against Florida and Gamecocks defensive end Chaz Sutton is tied for 41st in the nation with four sacks through Week 6.
Here's the difference to date: Aside from its opener against Vanderbilt and its first half at Kentucky, South Carolina has been ruthlessly efficient. It has outscored opponents 218-63 and outgained them by a ratio of nearly 1.5 yards to 1. LSU, on the other hand, has struggled to find consistency. It's averaging just 315 yards over its last three games (two of which came against Auburn and FCS Towson) and sputtered last week at Florida; half of its plays went for zero or negative yards. Still, Steve Spurrier isn't taking the Tigers lightly.
"Preseason No. 1 in the nation," Spurrier emphasized to reporters at his weekly press conference. "There was a reason for that."
For South Carolina, the key to breaking the Tigers may be wearing down their vaunted front four. The Gators were shut out for the first half of last week's meeting in Gainesville, but they responded by racking up 110 yards and two touchdowns in the second half, and they closed out their victory with 24 consecutive running plays. If South Carolina -- which features an even more polished Marcus Lattimore-led ground attack -- can generate early success, it could keep LSU's defense on the field while opening up the passing game for quarterback Connor Shaw.
On the other side of the ball, LSU will look to ride Kenny Hilliard and its stable of backs while deriving some production out of quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who's been underwhelming of late. But the X-factor may be the Tigers' offensive line. LSU lost All-SEC left tackle Chris Faulk to a season-ending knee injury in September and has run into some problems in his absence. The Tigers have allowed 15 sacks through six games and could also be without right guard Josh Williford, who is listed as questionable with a head injury.
Of course, the game's location should play a huge factor. Not only has South Carolina been much sharper at home than on the road, but it hasn't won in Baton Rouge since 1994 -- the program's only all-time win at LSU.
"The two [road games], we went to Vandy and we went to Kentucky, we struggled early," said Shaw Wednesday afternoon. "We're gonna have to prove that we can play on the road and especially in a hostile environment like LSU."
It's been a season full of milestones for the Gamecocks. Their current No. 3 ranking in the AP Poll is the team's highest since 1984; they're 6-0 for the first time since 1988; and they've won their first four SEC games for the first time since 2001.
Still, to truly assert itself as a national title threat, South Carolina must prove it can beat an elite team away from Columbia. Saturday at Tiger Stadium, it will have the chance to do just that.
Entering the season, Mettenberger was supposed to be LSU's offensive difference-maker. He was tabbed as the answer to the Tigers' one-dimensionality, a signal-caller who could not only complement the running game but provide an aerial presence that SEC defenses would have to respect.
Through six weeks, it hasn't worked out that way. For South Carolina, however, Shaw's emergence has turned the offense into a surprisingly multifaceted force.
To wit: The Gamecocks averaged 7.44 yards per passing attempt last season, fifth in the SEC. Through six games in 2012, they're averaging 10.06 yards, the third-best mark in the country.
Part of that's a product of necessity. With star back Lattimore still recovering from last season's torn ACL, Spurrier has placed immense trust in Shaw to employ the zone read, using a healthy dose of fakes and quarterback keepers. Shaw has rushed 64 times for 281 yards this year -- a slight drop-off from his 525-rushing yard, eight-touchdown output in 2011 -- but his totals would be higher if Shaw hadn't missed parts of three games (including the entire game against East Carolina) with an injury to his throwing shoulder.
The other part of his success stems from maturation. Shaw has turned heads by completing an astounding 83.7 percent of his passes over the last three games, and he's been terrific in making the right reads. He said he grew more comfortable during his recovery, helping further dispel the notion that he's primarily a rushing threat.
"Because of the injury I can't run as much," said Shaw. "I've developed a little pocket awareness from my injury."
Shaw isn't at the level of the nation's elite passers. He won't put up numbers on par with West Virginia's Geno Smith or Ohio State's Braxton Miller. But that's not what's asked of him. By eliminating mistakes -- he hasn't thrown an interception in his last 60 attempts -- and making several timely plays, Shaw becomes more than a game-manager; he's a game-changer. Given South Carolina's stellar running game and defense, that may be more than enough to win.
Outside of No. 1 Alabama, South Carolina has emerged as the SEC's team to beat. It's been bestowed with newfound status as the alpha dog in the East, and it has the talent to back up the hype: Lattimore and Clowney are regularly featured on Heisman lists, and Shaw, safety D.J. Swearinger and linebacker Shaq Wilson all look like potential year-end league awards candidates.
But more importantly, the Gamecocks have the right mindset to keep their run alive. And if their performance against Georgia was any indication -- and if LSU's recent issues against Auburn, Towson and Florida are representative -- South Carolina could make even more history starting Saturday in Baton Rouge.
"I think people underestimate how we play," said Shaw. "Only time will tell. We're just trying to prove we can play with anybody in the country."