South Carolina is in position to be the first Southeastern Conference team to move to 2-0 this season. The obstacle in its way? Mississippi State and a second straight road game to open the year.
We take a closer look at the matchups between the Gamecocks and Bulldogs:
When South Carolina is on offense …
South Carolina took a while to find offensive flow in its season opener. QB Brandon McIlwain showed flashes, and the offense moved decently in the second quarter. But in the fourth quarter at Vanderbilt, things clicked. Perry Orth passed well late and the Gamecocks got big chunks of yardage down the field with A.J. Turner and Bryan Edwards.
Two days later, Mississippi State gave up 285 yards passing to South Alabama. The Bulldogs have an unproven secondary and are missing some top cornerbacks. South Carolina still has an uncertain passing attack even though Edwards had a dynamic debut last week. But the Gamecocks should have an opportunity to throw downfield on Saturday.
But, as often is the case, this game figures to be won up front. The Mississippi State front seven is the best part of its defense, and the defensive line could get a boost from top 2016 recruit Jeffery Simmons and Nick James this week. A.J. Jefferson also is a force in the trenches. South Carolina had its offensive line settled going into the season but already has shuffled the lineup with Donell Stanley sidelined until October with a high ankle sprain.
The Gamecocks felt good about the unit through fall camp, but it struggled and drew a bevy of penalties against Vanderbilt. If the O-line can iron out some kinks and start with more force, it can set the tone.
Key matchup: South Carolina offensive line against the Mississippi State front
Key Gamecock: D.J. Park
Overall advantage: Mississippi State defense
When South Carolina is on defense …
USC was ready to step up and play physically against a power run team last week. The next test is different even without Dak Prescott at quarterback. The Gamecocks still have to account for the quarterback run, as both Nick Fitzgerald and Damian Williams can make plays with their feet. They also have to be on top of a bubble-screen attack and quick passes. Williams’ stat line tells that story as he completed 20 of 28 passes for 143 yards in the 21-20 loss to South Alabama.
The secondary also will be tested in new ways as Vanderbilt didn’t provide much of a test with its wide receivers. The Bulldogs have Fred Ross, a dynamic receiver who caught 88 passes in 2015 and is the focal point of the passing attack once again. Dan Mullen and his offensive staff will seek to get the ball in his hands however they can.
It’s about the linebackers and safeties this week, as USC’s will have to account for both the quarterback run and quick screens.
The Gamecocks’ ability to tackle in space, take on blocks and limit big plays will be put to the test. They didn’t allow big busts to Vanderbilt’s biggest strengths, not allowing a run of longer than 13 yards. They will be challenged now to spread out and shut down a different attack.
Key matchup: South Carolina linebackers against Mississippi State quarterbacks
Key Gamecock: Bryson Allen-Williams
Overall advantage: South Carolina defense