In the painful aftermath of their worst loss to their in-state rival since 1900, one refrain echoed throughout the South Carolina locker room: Never again.
As in, never again would a Gamecocks squad under coach Will Muschamp be shoved around, manhandled and embarrassed to the tune of 56-7, which was the whipping future national champion Clemson handed to South Carolina on the Saturday after last Thanksgiving in Death Valley (the ACC one). That resounding defeat rattled both a football team and its fan base, and fueled the Gamecocks into the following offseason.
And now they get their chance to put that mantra into action. The South Carolina squad that hosts No. 4 Clemson on Saturday night is much improved from the one dispatched so easily a year ago in the Upstate. The Gamecocks have a more seasoned quarterback, a better defense, and a more dangerous array of playmakers. And this time, they’ll be backed by a raucous home crowd for a night game at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Will it make a difference? Yes and no. We saw in South Carolina’s 24-10 loss at No. 7 Georgia that the Gamecocks can effectively execute a game plan against an elite opponent — and still get worn down in the end. It’s easy to foresee a similar outcome Saturday, and a game in which South Carolina is simply outlasted by Clemson’s relentless running game and defense.
But one thing seems virtually certain: It won’t be 56-7, not by a long shot. Deshaun Watson is in the NFL, the Gamecocks are a much better football team, and the game is in Columbia. And this time, it shapes up as a dogfight until the very end. On to the predictions, with all kickoffs in Eastern time.
No. 4 Clemson at South Carolina: Gamecocks push Tigers to brink
There’s a formula for an upset in Columbia: Gamecocks key on that Clemson run game and force Tigers quarterback Kelly Bryant to make the big throws he’s not particularly adept at making, and then hope That Pickens County School gets bitten by its awful kicking situation. More likely, the Gamecocks struggle to stay on the field on offense, with too many quick possessions due to incomplete passes, and are done in by their terrible third-down conversion rate. South Carolina has enough to keep this a ballgame late, but first it’s going to have to manage a clock-killing running game against that Clemson defense. Christian Wilkins may have something to say about that.
Kickoff: Saturday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
Line: Clemson by 14
Prediction: Clemson 38, South Carolina 31
Ole Miss at No. 16 Mississippi State: Bulldogs spoil Rebels’ bowl game
Put this game in Oxford, where the Rebels would have a chance to end this bowl-less season by getting to .500 against their rival, and who knows what role emotion and atmosphere might play. But it’s in Starkville, and while Mississippi State has played a little too up and down to competition in recent weeks, and it’s hard to envision the Bulldogs letting this slip after the way they played at home against Alabama. While it appears Ole Miss has eyes on others for its permanent coaching gig, Matt Luke has done a fine job keeping the Rebels competitive in all but three games this season. They will be once again in the Egg Bowl.
Kickoff: Thursday, 7:30 p.m., ESPN
Line: Mississippi State by 16
Prediction: Mississippi State 42, Ole Miss 30
Missouri at Arkansas: Tigers push winning streak to six
What do we call this trophy again? The Branson Bowl? The Ozark Cup? We at Bold Predictions miss the days when Arkansas-LSU was the fixture on the Friday after Thanksgiving. We’ll have to settle for quarterback Drew Lock and the Tigers continuing their late-season Missourisance by annihilating yet another opponent having a down season. No matter that their five-game win streak has come against opponents with a combined record of 18-35, and the Hogs are a teetering 4-7 with a coach on the brink of being fired. Tigers coach Barry Odom has done an admirable job turning this thing around and saving his job, but let’s not act like this is the second coming of Gary Pinkel.
Kickoff: Friday, 2:30 p.m., CBS
Line: Missouri by 11
Prediction: Missouri 48, Arkansas 31
No. 7 Georgia at Georgia Tech: Bulldogs stymie Jackets’ rushing attack
On the surface, this feels like a dangerous game for Georgia, given that it’s in Atlanta and the Yellow Jackets run the kind of option offense that’s tough for opponents to fully prepare for in a single week. And highly ranked Bulldogs teams have gagged in season finales to Georgia Tech before (we’re looking at you, 2014). But this Georgia team has looked fairly bulletproof against everyone but Auburn, and this Georgia Tech squad has never really found itself. Last week’s loss to 4-8 Duke was a low point for the Jackets, while the Bulldogs rebounded nicely from their loss on the Plains. Georgia Tech is good at both running the ball and stopping the run, but this is a serious step up in class for the Jackets, whose option is no match for Georgia’s front seven.
Kickoff: Saturday, noon, ABC
Line: Georgia by 11
Prediction: Georgia 34, Georgia Tech 24
Florida State at Florida: Gators defense steps up again in finale
Wait, wasn’t that Chip Kelly we saw eating lunch last week at the Panera Bread on University Avenue? In Gainesville, the final few games of this lost season are an afterthought when compared to the Chip Chronicles. Even this storied Sunshine State rivalry feels like a piece of tropical fruit that’s been left on the windowsill for too long. And yet after getting embarrassed at Missouri, Florida’s defense has stepped up and shown a little pride — first in a game effort in a loss at South Carolina, and then in a complete domination of upset-minded UAB. The Seminoles aren’t exactly at full strength on offense, and Florida’s once-feared defense has found its footing a little. Against a rival, there’s every reason for them to finish strong.
Kickoff: Saturday, noon, ESPN
Line: Florida State by 5
Prediction: Florida 27, Florida State 24
Louisville at Kentucky: Lamar Jackson too much for Wildcats
Fast start, slow finish — that’s been Kentucky in a nutshell under coach Mark Stoops, and it’s been the case again this season. The Wildcats have dropped three of five since a 5-1 start, and they finish the season against a Louisville team that’s been all over the map. But Kentucky has struggled to close out games against mediocre opponents, dropping last-minute decisions to Florida and Ole Miss that cost the Wildcats second place in the SEC East. While this isn’t the Louisville of last season, the Cardinals are still much better than a lot of the teams Kentucky has struggled to beat. Reigning Heisman winner Lamar Jackson leads the ACC in rushing, passing average and total offense per game, and Kentucky will be hard-pressed to stop him.
READ MORE: Kentucky TE C.J. Conrad lost to foot injury
Kickoff: Saturday, noon, SEC Network
Line: Louisville by 10
Prediction: Louisville 38, Kentucky 30
No. 1 Alabama at No. 6 Auburn: Tigers toss wrench into College Football Playoff
The hints were evident in the close call against Mississippi State, where Alabama had issues protecting quarterback Jalen Hurts and showed more signs that injuries are taking a toll on that Crimson Tide defense. The Bulldogs simply weren’t good enough to take full advantage — but Auburn is. The Tigers have the kind of offense capable of keeping Hurts off the field. They have the kind of defense to match Alabama’s toe to toe, and will play before a crazy home crowd at Jordan-Hare Stadium. A Tigers victory also gums up the College Football Playoff, given that it leaves the question of what to do with a one-loss ’Bama that can’t play for the SEC title. All yours, selection committee.
Kickoff: Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS
Line: Alabama by 4½
Prediction: Auburn 31, Alabama 28
Vanderbilt at Tennessee: Somebody will win an SEC game!
Seriously, what to do with a game between two teams that are a combined 0-14 in SEC play? Televise it on the SEC Alternate to the Alternate to the Alternate Channel? Issue a parental warning before the broadcast? Relegate the loser to the Southern Conference? (And, by extension: Welcome to the big time, Wofford!) This is a brutal matchup between two teams that were expected to fare much, much better. One can’t score, one can’t stop anyone. But somebody has to win — so make it Tennessee, behind some kind of Ball State-era Brady Hoke magic, finally getting some points on the board against a Vanderbilt defense that’s been a sieve all season. And then let’s all run over to Calhoun’s to see if Jon Gruden is chowing down on a half-rack.
Kickoff: Saturday, 4 p.m., SEC Network
Line: Tennessee by 1
Prediction: Tennessee 17, Vanderbilt 14
Texas A&M at No. 19 LSU: Tigers defense makes difference again
Eight games has become the established minimum at Texas A&M, and the Aggies have to win in Death Valley (the SEC one) to get there in the regular season. That won’t seem to matter for coach Kevin Sumlin, who will reportedly be fired win or lose. Initially, this seems a rather wide Vegas line given how the Aggies can score points, especially with Nick Starkel back as starting quarterback. But LSU has been very strong defensively since the second half of the Auburn game, a stretch that includes the 24-10 loss to Alabama. Texas A&M is going to try to flat outscore the Tigers, and Dave Aranda’s crew is unlikely to let that happen.
Kickoff: Saturday, 7:30 p.m., SEC Network
Line: LSU by 10½
Prediction: LSU 31, Texas A&M 24