Will Muschamp’s return to being a head coach in the SEC starts right where he has to feel most comfortable: In a season-opening clash with another defensive-minded head coach in Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason.
But the matchup runs beyond just a pair of strong defensive coaches. We take a closer look at the matchups between South Carolina and Vanderbilt:
When South Carolina is on offense …
The Gamecocks, specifically Will Muschamp, haven’t tipped their hand on who will start at quarterback. But what is around the quarterback will dictate as much as anything. All three quarterbacks have enough similarities that the offense should not be drastically different depending on who is playing.
It also will be predicated based on what Vanderbilt does defensively. The Commodores bring back an experienced secondary led by corner Torren McGaster and safety Oren Burks. Linebacker Zach Cunningham is the playmaker of the defense and he racks up tackles in Mason’s defense.
So the short passes, screens and quick plays that South Carolina ran plenty of during open fall practices will be a method to attack. The wide receivers will be asked to open up the Vanderbilt defense, as will tight end Hayden Hurst, by trying to take the roof off from time to time. It’s a great opportunity to test Deebo Samuel, Bryan Edwards, Jamari Smith and the rest of the inexperienced receivers.
Where the Gamecocks are best set up against Vanderbilt is on the line. The offensive line is expected to be the best position group with the left side especially strong. The Commodores didn’t get a ton of pressure on quarterbacks last season. Instead, Vandy’s defensive line took up space and allowed Cunningham to make plays.
Behind that line, the Gamecocks — as Muschamp said — will try to mix up the run game with creativity. A variety of running backs, quarterback runs and even Lorenzo Nunez taking snaps will be in play.
Key matchup: South Carolina wide receivers against Vanderbilt’s secondary
Key Gamecock: Deebo Samuel
Advantage: Vanderbilt defense
When South Carolina is on defense …
Vanderbilt’s offense has been run, run, run – not surprising given Mason’s background at Stanford. It wasn’t the most efficient run offense last season with standout back Ralph Webb amassing 277 carries and in line for a hefty workload once again.
But it should be run-heavy with Kyle Shurmer up and down at quarterback last season with a low completion percentage. There is a weakness vs. weakness element: Shurmer not lighting it up in 2015 and the Gamecocks’ iffy secondary that has struggled in the past couple seasons and is adjusting to a new scheme.
The Gamecocks have struggled to get pressure on quarterbacks. This concerned Muschamp in preseason camp. That pass rush has a solid test in a Vanderbilt line that brings back a good dose of starting experience.
If USC can win up front defensively, it should put them in position to be effective in limiting Webb for the second straight season as the linebackers – T.J. Holloman, Jonathan Walton, Bryson Allen-Williams – are the most experienced group on the defense and will be able to flow to the ball behind the line.
Expect South Carolina defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson to throw a variety of defenses at Vanderbilt. The Gamecocks will seek to employ multiple looks and formations to confuse Shurmur.
Key matchup: South Carolina’s defensive line against Vanderbilt’s offensive line
Key Gamecock: Marquavius Lewis
Mike Wilson covers South Carolina athletics for SECCountry.com and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow him on Twitter for the latest on the Gamecocks.