Gamecocks, Zips meet for the first time ever on Saturday in Columbia
Fate and mother nature will bring the South Carolina Gamecocks and Akron Zips together for the first time ever on Saturday inside Williams-Brice Stadium. Inclement weather forced both teams to cancel early-season matchups against other opponents. Neither one of those games could be rescheduled. So, the Zips and Gamecocks decided it would be a good idea to wrap up the regular season against each other.
South Carolina (6-5, 4-4 SEC) will enter Saturday’s make-up game a little worse for the wear after losing to in-state rival Clemson for the fifth consecutive season by a score of 56-35. The silver lining is that the Gamecocks managed to rack up 35 points against an elite Clemson defense that had allowed just 49 points total in its previous six games combined. Already bowl eligible with six wins, Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks now look to improve their bowl prospects with win number seven on the season against the visiting Zips.
The Zips (4-7, 2-6 MAC) make their way to Columbia on the heels of a four-game losing streak. Terry Bowden’s Akron squad entered the season as the defending MAC East Division champs and got off to a 2-0 start, including a colossal 39-34 upset of eventual Big Ten West champion Northwestern. However, things have pretty much gone south from there. Now ineligible for postseason play, Saturday’s matchup at South Carolina will serve as a de facto bowl game for the Zips.
Akron at South Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 1 at 12 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: South Carolina -30.5
Three Things to Watch
1. A red-hot Jake Bentley
Bentley drew plenty of criticism for his poor play in the first half of the season, but that criticism has quickly turned to praise. The junior quarterback has been absolutely on fire of late, completing 70 percent of his passes for 1,451 yards with 13 touchdown passes and just two interceptions over his last four games. That stretch is highlighted by last week’s record-setting 510-yard, five-touchdown performance against a top-flight Clemson defense. Senior wide receiver Deebo Samuel has stepped up as well, with 442 receiving yards and four touchdowns over the last three weeks.
Bentley and company will face an Akron defense that has been nothing short of solid against the pass, allowing 190 passing yards per game (26th in the FBS) and only 10 touchdown passes all season. Bentley will need to be particularly mindful of Zips’ cornerback Alvin Davis, who had two pick-sixes in Akron’s upset win against Northwestern. That said, this matchup shouldn’t be much of a problem for a Gamecock passing attack that is finally hitting on all cylinders.
2. The run game
It’s not difficult to see why Akron has lost each of its last four games. Over that stretch, the Zips have managed a total of 207 yards without a single rushing touchdown. Akron opponents, on the other hand, have combined for a ridiculous 1,150 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground alone over the same stretch. And while the Gamecocks aren’t exactly a powerhouse when it comes to running the football or stopping the run themselves, they should have no trouble exploiting the Zips in this respect on either side of the ball Saturday. South Carolina running backs Mon Denson, Rico Dowdle and Deshaun Fenwick should have a field day, while it will probably be tough sledding for Akron running back Van Edwards Jr. and an anemic Zips’ rushing attack.
3. The Akron passing game
If Akron is going to find any success on offense against the Gamecocks, it will likely come via the passing game. Sophomore quarterback Kato Nelson has been wildly inconsistent this season playing behind a lackluster offensive line. However, the dual-threat signal-caller has shown flashes, and Nelson is coming off his best game of the season, throwing for 356 yards and four touchdowns against Ohio last week. Nelson will likely lean heavily on his favorite target, Andre Williams, on Saturday. Williams leads all Akron receivers with 46 catches for 649 yards and six touchdowns on the season. The Akron passing attack should benefit from a South Carolina defense that is pretty beat up at this stage of the season. The Gamecocks are so dinged up defensively, in fact, that running back A.J. Turner has been called upon to play nickelback in this matchup. So, it won’t come as a complete shock if the Zips are able to do a little damage through the air on Saturday.
This game may not mean much in the grand scheme of things. However, both teams do have reason to put their best foot forward. For South Carolina, seven wins will look much better than six when it comes to the bowl selection process that will take place on Sunday. And the Gamecock seniors will want to go out with a bang in their final game inside Williams-Brice Stadium.
This will be the last game period for the Akron seniors, and this matchup is the closest the Zips will get to a bowl game this season. Regardless, Akron is outmatched in every conceivable way against a bigger, stronger and faster opponent from the SEC. The Zips might find a way to put a couple in the end zone against an injury-riddled Gamecock defense, most likely in garbage time, but that’s probably a best-case scenario.
Prediction: South Carolina 45, Akron 14
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.