By Scott Hood, GamecockCentral.com
What: No. 14 South Carolina (4-1) at Arkansas (3-3)
Where: Reynolds Razorback Stadium (72,000), Fayetteville, Ark.
When: Saturday, 12:21 p.m. ET
TV/Radio: SEC TV (Dave Neal, Andre Ware, Cara Capuano); Gamecock Radio Network, 107.5 FM in Columbia (Todd Ellis, Tommy Suggs, Langston Moore)
Needing a victory to stay in the SEC East race, South Carolina travels to a place where they've experienced little success in recent years. In fact, a win over Arkansas on Saturday would be USC's first in Fayetteville since 2005. This might also be the last opportunity for the Gamecocks to win at Razorback Stadium in a while since Texas A&M comes onto the schedule as the new permanent crossover opponent in 2014. Hey, it won't be the same without hearing 'Woo Pig Sooie!' rattle off the hills in the Ozarks.
USC OFFENSE v. ARKANSAS DEFENSE:
Buried in the ceaseless Clowney chatter this week is the fact the USC offense continues to hum along with five straight games of 27 or more points and an average of 476.4 yards per game. The Gamecocks matched their season high in points during last week's 35-28 victory over Kentucky.
Over the last six quarters, USC has logged 14 offensive possessions not counting the two in which they ran out the clock. The Gamecocks have scored on 10 of those 14 possessions with eight touchdowns, two field goals, two punts and two fumbles.
Fast starts have highlighted the first five games with 55 points in the opening quarter, but Arkansas has allowed one opponent to score on its first drive of the game and just 24 first-quarter points at the halfway mark.
The leader of the pack, of course, is quarterback Connor Shaw, who completed 17-of-20 passes for 262 yards and one touchdown in the win over Kentucky. So far this season, Shaw's passing numbers look a lot like the past two seasons - a high completion percentage (68.8 percent) mixed in with a moderate number of touchdown passes (7) with few mistakes (zero interceptions).
He'll throw against an Arkansas secondary allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 61.4 percent of their passes with 11 touchdowns, second highest in the SEC behind Texas A&M (12 TD passes allowed), with four interceptions. However, Arkansas leads the SEC with 17 sacks for 123 yards in losses, so pressure will be felt by the USC offensive line to keep Shaw's uniform free of grass stains.
Senior defensive end Chris Smith is tied for the SEC lead in sacks (6) and third in tackles for loss (8), while Trey Flowers has two forced fumbles. Arkansas is the only SEC school with three players ranked in the Top 10 in sacks - Smith, Flowers and DT Robert Thomas. The leading tackler is MLB Jarrett Lake with 42 stops, eighth in the SEC.
The engine of the USC offense, though, has been Mike Davis and the ground game as the sophomore leads the SEC in rushing average (122.8 YPG) and is second in all-purpose yards (159 yards per game). Davis already has four 100-yard games, matching USC's total number from a year ago. Arkansas is allowing 124.5 rushing yards per game.
With Shaq Roland serving the third of a three-game suspension, Damiere Byrd could again be the focus of the USC passing game. Byrd has 10 receptions for 172 yards and one touchdown in the last two games, and has risen to third on USC's pass-catching chart behind Bruce Ellington (15 receptions) and Nick Jones (14).
USC is converting 52.1 percent (36-of-69) of third down opportunities, setting up a confrontation with an Arkansas defense holding foes to a 31.1 percent conversion rate after the first quarter.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Connor Shaw, RB Mike Davis, RB Shon Carson, WR Bruce Ellington, WR Nick Jones, TE Busta Anderson, LT Corey Robinson, RT Brandon Shell.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DE Chris Smith, DE Trey Flowers, MLB Jarrett Lake, WLB Braylon Mitchell, CB Tevin Mitchel, SS Alan Turner.
1. USC RB Mike Davis vs. ARK MLB Jarrett Lake.
2. USC WR Bruce Ellington and WR Damiere Byrd vs. ARK CB Tevin Mitchel and CB Carroll Washington.
3. USC QB Connor Shaw v. ARK DE Chris Smith.
COACH'S COMMENT: "Arkansas is a good team that has had some fourth quarter struggles like we have, except we have managed to hand on and win some of our fourth quarter struggles. They've lost their last three in a row. But they are a good team. They are going to try to run it down your throat. Bret Bielema, their coach, is a hard-nosed, tough guy that believes in running the ball, controlling the clock and that is what they are going to try to do. It will be a big challenge to see if we can line up and take their best shot" - USC head coach Steve Spurrier.
ARKANSAS OFFENSE v. USC DEFENSE:
Remember Darren McFadden and Felix Jones? The 2007 Gamecock defense certainly does.
Years have passed since we've seen an Arkansas team emphasize first and foremost on running the football, but Bret Bielema was imported from Wisconsin to implement the smash mouth philosophy that brought the Badgers unprecedented success. Spread offense? Not in Fayetteville.
The crown jewel of Arkansas' 2013 signing class was four-star running back Alex Collins, who ultimately signed with the Razorbacks after some National Signing Day drama. Bielema is happy he won the hard-fought battle for Collins' services because the 5-foot-11, 206-pound native of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. leads the SEC in total rushing yards (651) and ranks fourth in rushing yards per game (108.5 ypg).
But the Arkansas running game encompasses more than just Collins left and Collins right. Sophomore Jonathan Williams ranks fifth in the SEC with 503 rushing yards and rushing attempts (81), while eighth in yards per game (83.8). Collins and Williams combine for 192.3 rushing yards per game (89 percent of Arkansas's total average of 216 yards per game), so unless Bielema channels his inner Bobby Petrino (no motorcycle jokes please), the first, second and third priorities of the Gamecock defense on Saturday afternoon is to stop the run.
USC is currently fifth in the SEC in rushing defense (127.8 ypg), 3.3 yards behind Arkansas, and has allowed fewer than 125 rushing yards in four of five contests this season. The Georgia debacle (227 rushing yards) skews the average. The defensive front seven for the Gamecocks must be dialed in from the outset or a long afternoon in the Ozarks could unfold for USC.
Arkansas is averaging 42.2 rushing attempts per game and nearly 62 percent of the play calls in the first six games have been runs as opposed to passes. Take that, Petrino.
Because of their success in the ground game, Razorbacks quarterback Brandon Allen (122.69 efficiency rating) is virtually an afterthought. The successor to Tyler Wilson is completing less than 50 percent of his passes (49.6 percent) for 834 yards and eight touchdowns. The top three receivers are Javontee Herndon (17 receptions), 6-foot-6 freshman tight end Hunter Henry (15) and sophomore Keon Hatcher (11).
Two storylines have swirled around the USC defense this week - the status of All-America defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and projected personnel changes. Clowney, of course, sat out last Saturday's victory over Kentucky with a muscle strain in his rib cage. His decision to sit out led to venomous attacks by the national media this week, along with questions about his commitment level to football.
Clowney is listed as "questionable" for the game, but Spurrier said Thursday that the probable top five NFL Draft pick should be ready to play.
Yielding an excessive number of big plays in the fourth quarter has finally convinced Spurrier and defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward to give some other players a chance. But which players? We won't know specifically until pre-game warmups.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Brandon Allen, RB Alex Collins, RB Jonathan Williams, WR Javontee Herndon, WR Keon Hatcher, TE Hunter Henry, LT David Hurd.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DE Jadeveon Clowney, DE Chaz Sutton, DT Kelcy Quarles, MLB T.J. Holloman, OLB Marcquis Roberts, CB Jimmy Legree, CB Victor Hampton, FS Brison Williams.
1. ARK RB Alex Collins and RB Jonathan Williams vs. MLB T.J. Holloman and OLB Marcquis Roberts.
2. ARK QB Brandon Allen vs. USC CB Victor Hampton.
3. ARK LT David Hurd and RT Grady Ollison vs. USC DE Jadeveon Clowney and DE Chaz Sutton.
COACH'S COMMENT: "The kids are excited about South Carolina. It's homecoming week. That's something I really preach to our kids that you're going to have a great crowd. It's an early game, but I know they'll show up and obviously South Carolina is a very good opponent. It should be a tremendous atmosphere" - Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema.
Quarterback - Edge to USC
Running Back - Even
Wide Receiver - Slight edge to USC
Offensive Line - Even
Tight End - Edge to USC
Defensive Line - Edge to USC
Linebacker - Edge to Ark
Secondary - Slight edge to Ark
Special Teams - Edge to Ark
SYNOPSIS: Paraphrasing 'Slap Shot,' are you ready for some old-fashioned football when power, muscle and strength mattered most? Neither team will try to trick the other. This one will likely be decided by whichever team's offense controls the line of scrimmage the best and is able to churn out the rushing yards. The team with the most yards on the ground wins? What a concept! USC hasn't had much success in the state of Arkansas, dropping eight of the 10 games played in Fayetteville (1-5) or Little Rock 1-3) since both programs joined the conference in 1992. USC's only win in Fayetteville came by a 14-10 score in 2005.
PREDICTION: How often do we watch games in today's spread-happy world of college football in which the two teams combines for 90 to 100 passes? Well, these two teams could easily combine for 90 rushing attempts. The battle between Mike Davis and Alex Collins should be worth the price of admission. Both teams have strong defensive lines. What will be the difference? Connor Shaw's experience (26th career start) and the early kickoff. As Steve Spurrier pointed out on Thursday, the Gamecocks possess a heartening record in road games with noon hour kickoffs because the home crowd is less of a factor than prime time games and the players are able to focus on the game the moment they wake up in the morning. No need to sit around the hotel all day getting antsy. Look for a close, hard-fought game in which Shaw and Davis make one more play than Allen and Collins, disappointing the Homecoming Weekend crowd in Fayetteville.
The Pick: USC 27, Arkansas 24