By Scott Hood, GamecockCentral.com
What: Vanderbilt (1-1) at No. 13 South Carolina (1-1);
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium (80,250), Columbia, SC;
When: Saturday, 7 p.m.
TV/Radio: ESPN (Brad Nessler, Todd Blackledge, Holly Rowe); Gamecock Radio Network, 107.5 FM in Columbia (Todd Ellis, Tommy Suggs, Langston Moore).
South Carolina will be playing for their SEC lives when they host Vanderbilt on Saturday night in a nationally televised affair. Essentially, the contest functions as a divisional title elimination game with the loser saddled with a second conference loss. USC is trying to rebound from last week's disappointing 41-30 loss at Georgia, while the Commodores fell to Ole Miss, 39-35, in the season opener. USC has won 12 home games in a row. Will they make it Lucky 13?
USC OFFENSE v. VANDERBILT DEFENSE:
Ole Miss might have provided USC the blueprint for success against the Vanderbilt defense by running the ball 47 times for 205 yards in the Rebels' wild 39-35 victory in Nashville on August 29.
The Rebels struck oil in the final minute of the game when running back Jeff Scott raced 75 yards for a touchdown to stun the Commodores.
Ironically, USC running back Mike Davis (264 yards on 28 carries) has twice taken a handoff and run for 75 yards in the opening two games of the season. Obviously, Marcus Lattimore will never be forgotten by the Gamecock faithful, but Davis is doing his best to soften the loss with back-to-back 100-yard performances against North Carolina and Georgia. Now he will try to accomplish something against Vanderbilt that Lattimore managed to achieve once in his career: three straight games with 100 or more rushing yards.
His surprising speed (see both 75-yard runs), together with his strength and power (see short TD run at Georgia) gives Davis all the essential ingredients to become a superb SEC running back. He passed his first test in Athens, but consistency is the hallmark of every top running back.
Contributions from quarterback Connor Shaw (118 yards) and Brandon Wilds (73 yards) give the Gamecocks three quality runners. USC has 454 rushing yards on 74 carries in two games, so a solid ground games is still the core of the USC offense.
Except for a rare mistake by Shaw (fumble) and the inability to punch the ball into the end zone from the two-yard line, the USC offense ran on all cylinders at Georgia, accumulating 454 yards. Shaw was 16-of-25 passing for 228 yards, giving him a 60 percent completion rate (27-of-45 for 377 yards) after two games.
Steve Spurrier came close on Thursday night to guaranteeing that Dylan Thompson will play at some point against the Commodores. After an offseason of speculation about the quarterback position, Thompson has taken one snap in the first two games.
Beyond the quarterback spot, the biggest storylines in the first two games have been the rise of Nick Jones to the No. 1 receiver role and center Clayton Stadnik's encouraging debut in place of the injured Cody Waldrop.
Jones entered the season with 24 receptions and one touchdown in 22 career games, but has increased his receptions total by 42 percent in two games with 10 catches for 118 yards and two touchdowns. At this point, Jones is the 'go-to' guy for Shaw, but will he be able to retain the crown now that Bruce Ellington is healthy again?
Vanderbilt's defense is anchored by an experienced defensive line and a senior-laden secondary. The defensive front of ends Kyle Woestmann and Walker May and tackles Jared Morse and Vince Taylor will challenge the USC offensive line.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Connor Shaw, RB Mike Davis, RB Brandon Wilds, WR Bruce Ellington, WR Nick Jones, TE Busta Anderson, LT Corey Robinson, RT Brandon Shell.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DE Kyle Woestmann, DT Jared Morse, DE Walker May, MLB Jake Sealand, CB Andre Hal, CB Steven Clarke.
1. USC RB Mike Davis and RB Brandon Wilds vs. VAN MLB Jake Sealand and OLB Karl Butler;
2. USC WR Nick Jones and WR Bruce Ellington vs. CB Andre Hal and CB Steven Clarke.
3. USC C Clayton Stadnik vs. VAN NT Vince Taylor.
COACH'S COMMENT: "Vanderbilt is a good team. James Franklin and his staff really do a good job. They really do. Their players are well disciplined, and they don't make a lot of mistakes in coverages. They are where they are supposed to be all the time. That's one big reason they have won so many games the past couple years. They haven't beaten us, Georgia or Florida yet, and they think this is the year that they are going to beat some of the top-three teams in the (SEC) East. Hopefully, it's not this week. But they are a good team, so we've got to play well." - USC head coach Steve Spurrier.
VANDERBILT OFFENSE v. USC DEFENSE:
Vanderbilt found the successor to Jordan Rogers in. . .Wyoming? Indeed. Senior Austyn Carta-Samuels enjoyed two productive seasons (2009-10) in Laramie, Wyo. as quarterback for the Cowboys before deciding he wanted to play quarterback at the highest level.
The Wyoming transfer is averaging 261.5 passing yards and 276 of total offense in his first two starts. Two weeks ago, Carta-Samuels threw for 300 yards on 21-of-36 passing in the last-minute loss to Ole Miss, one of the best passing performances ever by a Vanderbilt QB in the season opener.
Carta-Samuels guides a once staid Vanderbilt offense that has scored 35 or more points in five consecutive games and seven of the last eight dating back to last season. In the last eight games, Vanderbilt is averaging 40.4 points against four SEC teams and two from the ACC. One factor is the Commodores' offensive success is a flawless mark (10-for-10) in the red zone this season with nine touchdowns and one field goal.
Life with Zac Stacy at running back was enjoyable for the Commodores as he compiled back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2011 and 2012, including a school record 1,193 yards two years ago. This season, Vanderbilt has taken a running back by committee approach through the first two weeks with Jerron Seymour (89 yards), Brian Kimbrow (88 yards) and Wesley Tate (56 yards) sharing the ball carrying load.
The numbers at wide receiver are not as close. Senior receiver Jordan Mathews (16 receptions in two games) is Vanderbilt's top threat on offense and he has consecutive 100-yard receiving games to open the season, including a 10-catch, 178-yard outing against Ole Miss. Clearly, the USC secondary must keep close tabs on Matthews, who has caught a touchdown in seven straight games, while also making sure Jonathan Krause and freshman Jordan Cunningham don't run free as Georgia receivers did too frequently last weekend.
Vanderbilt's passing attack has been hurt by the absence of Chris Boyd, who pled guilty on Friday morning to a lesser misdemeanor charge for his role in the well-publicized rape case involving four dismissed Commodore players. Boyd, indefinitely suspended after he was indicted August 16 on a felony charge of being an accessory after the fact to the alleged rape, was Vanderbilt's second leading receiver last season with 50 receptions for 774 yards and five touchdowns.
Cornerback Victor Hampton's health is one of the biggest concerns for the USC secondary heading into the game. He spent most of the week with his foot in a boot until running around at practice on Thursday. Will Hampton start? That will be up to secondary coach Grady Brown.
Coming off the dreadful performance at Georgia, defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward isn't just sitting around hoping things get better. He moved Larenz Bryant to spur when Sharrod Golightly and Jordan Diggs labored covering bigger tight ends in the first two games.
The strong safety spot should be bolstered by the return of Kadetrix Marcus, who missed the last game with a dislocated shoulder. T.J. Gurley leads USC in tackles, but has struggled in pass coverage. Marcus is expected to regain his starting job.
The biggest challenge facing Ward is finding a solution to the problem of opposing offenses running a vast majority of plays away from Jadeveon Clowney, who is clearly frustrated by the trend. Do you line up at different spots? Do you line him up in the middle? Is the burden on the other 10 defensive players to step up and do their jobs?
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Austyn Carta-Samuels, RB Wesley Tate, RB Brian Kimbrow, WR Jordan Matthews, WR Jonathan Krause, OT Wesley Johnson.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DE Jadeveon Clowney, DE Chaz Sutton, DT Kelcy Quarles, LB Kaiwan Lewis, LB Marcquis Roberts, CB Jimmy Legree, CB Ahmad Christian, FS Brison Williams.
1. VAN OT Wesley Johnson vs. USC DE Jadeveon Clowney.
2. VAN WR Jordan Matthews and WR Jonathan Krause vs. USC CB Victor Hampton and CB Jimmy Legree.
3. VAN QB Austyn Carta-Samuels v. USC LB Kaiwan Lewis and OLB Marcquis Roberts.
COACH'S COMMENT: "Connor Shaw is a veteran quarterback and he's a challenge. He's got great mobility. You'll see a lot of his big plays come when he's on the move, running around making plans with his feet. Connor Shaw as well as Dylan Thompson both have experience and have hurt people. I think that's a real position of strength for them. We are excited about playing South Carolina this week. It's a great opponent with a good head, and they have a great fan base." - Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin
Quarterback - Edge to USC
Running Back - Edge to USC
Wide Receiver - Edge to Vandy
Offensive Line - Edge to USC
Tight End - Edge to USC
Defensive Line - Slight Edge to USC
Linebacker - Even
Secondary - Edge to Vandy
Special Teams - Edge to Vandy
SYNOPSIS: Spurrier is a huge James Franklin admirer, and for good reason. Franklin has been fearless, feisty and ferocious in his first three seasons leading Vanderbilt out from the daunting depth of darkness accumulated from decades of mediocrity. Franklin is 16-12 overall with two bowl appearances so far. At some SEC schools, that's not enough, but in Nashville his relative success is a cause of celebration. Even though USC has won four straight games in the series, all four victories have been close, hard-fought, low-scoring affairs with 21 points being the high-water mark. We've seen over the past two seasons that USC, like many college football teams, performs better at home than on the road as the 12-game home winning streak attests. Carta-Samuels is a fifth-year senior, but this game marks his first start on the road in the SEC. Quarterbacking in enemy stadiums in the Mountain West Conference is one thing. Doing it in the SEC is another. Don't be surprised if he struggles.
PREDICTION: In 15 home games since Jadeveon Clowney joined the program in 2011, USC has surrendered 13 or fewer points on 10 occasions. Being back at the ultra-friendly confines of Williams-Brice Stadium should produce a major bounce-back for the Gamecock defense from a week ago. In addition, Connor Shaw is undefeated at home (11-0) is his career. Steve Spurrier owns an 18-2 all-time record against Vanderbilt. Granted, Vanderbilt should generate more offense than two years ago when a dominant Gamecock defense spearheaded a 21-3 victory by yielding just 77 yards of offense while forcing three turnovers and sacking the quarterback six times, but the USC offense should click again at home with Davis reaching the century mark for the third straight week. Lucky 13? Yeah.
The Pick: USC 24, VANDERBILT 13