Welcome to Upset Alert, a weekly column spotlighting a Saturday favorite liable to get knocked off by the underdog.
The Week 2 slate of games is considerably less exciting than opening weekend — it will be pretty hard to top that one — with several teams scheduling non-con cupcakes ahead of SEC play. As such, there are far fewer upset candidates than most weeks.
But one stands out for obvious reasons. Mississippi State is favored over South Carolina, but here’s a case for why the Gamecocks can surprise in Starkville.
Winning your first game under a new head coach? Against an SEC team on the road?
In July, the media picked South Carolina to finish dead last in the SEC East. The Gamecocks had already lost linebacker Skai Moore, who was considered their best player, to a season-ending injury. There’s youth at just about every key position on the roster.
You might as well have erected a giant “REBUILDING YEAR” sign outside of Williams-Brice Stadium. So jumping to 1-0 on a last-second field goal has to have this team feeling much better about itself.
Sure, Vanderbilt blew a game it should have won. The Commodores are no powerhouse by any means. But neither is Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs just took a crushing home loss to South Alabama after a last-minute field goal attempt ricocheted off the uprights. How’s that for a confidence-killer?
They will respond in one of two ways: Walk into David Wade Stadium disgusted and beat the pants off South Carolina, or come out just as sluggish as they were on Saturday.
Given Mississippi State’s recent penchant for wilting when the pressure-cooker heats up, I’m betting it’s the latter.
2. Mississippi State threw that game away
South Alabama won last Saturday by maintaining possession and milking the clock on a few energy-sucking drives. Mississippi State only had the ball for about 39 percent of the game. And that probably shouldn’t have even happened given the way this game unfolded.
The Jaguars offense averaged 3.2 yards per carry. They committed eight penalties. They went 5-for-14 on third down, only to make up for it by converting a pair of fourth downs. Mississippi State outrushed them by 145 yards!
The real killer was opposing quarterback Dallas Davis, who finished 24 of 34 for 285 yards and 2 touchdowns. He orchestrated scoring drives of 71, 75 and 99 yards in the second half to give South Alabama the lead.
Mississippi State should be light-years better than this. The pass rush, with just three sacks on Saturday, will get better with Jeffery Simmons. Quarterback Damian Williams looked perfectly serviceable.
The question is whether the Bulldogs actually prove they are better than what we saw. To only score 20 points against a defense that allowed 37.3 per game last year? Awful and concerning.
1. South Carolina has the formula to make this happen again
Vanderbilt has an underrated defense, and Perry Orth looked respectable against it: 11 of 19 passing, 8 yards per completion, no mistakes. Freshmen A.J. Turner (70 yards rushing) and Bryan Edwards (101 yards receiving) also looked promising.
On defense, South Carolina kept talented tailback Ralph Webb contained to 97 yards on 20 rushes. Kyle Shurmur couldn’t do anything. The Gamecocks were stout on third down, tackled well and generally played much, much better fundamental football than what we saw in 2015.
Not to mention, the Gamecocks were sloppy as heck in some areas — turning it over twice while racking up 51 penalty yards — and still managed to win on the road. Imagine how they’ll fare when those mistakes get cleaned up and don’t bounce their opponents’ way?
The biggest concern has to be Mississippi State’s pass rush against a South Carolina O-line that’s still a work in progress. But if Kurt Roper can find a way to keep his high-upside skill players — Edwards, Turner Deebo Samuel — involved, then the back end of the Bulldogs’ defense looked a little Swiss cheese-like. Remember, South Alabama’s key 99-yard scoring drive was sparked by a 37-yard run from its own goal line.
That the Bulldogs are favored by only 6.5 points at home is telling. Another low-scoring SEC slugfest is on tap. Mississippi State is the more talented team, but Muschamp has grown smarter over the years.
Give me the ‘Cocks to be a surprising 2-0.