It’s a light slate of college football action this week, but Saturday night features a few intriguing matchups in the SEC, including South Carolina traveling to Auburn for a potential high-scoring affair.
This matchup was pegged in August as a potential showdown of division title contenders or an early preview of the SEC Championship. But eight weeks into the season, this contest has a different feel, as Auburn is looking to rebound following a loss to Mississippi State, while South Carolina is just 4-3 and likely out of the East Division title picture with a 2-3 mark in conference play.
Auburn owns a 9-1-1 series edge over South Carolina. The Tigers have not lost to the Gamecocks with both teams as members of the SEC. South Carolina’s last win over Auburn occurred in 1933.
South Carolina at Auburn
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Auburn -19
Three Things to Watch
1. South Carolina’s Defense
The Gamecocks’ defense has been one of the biggest disappointments in the SEC this year. Through seven games, South Carolina is allowing 6.2 yards per play and 31.4 points per game. That’s a significant increase from last year’s totals, as the Gamecocks ranked No. 2 in the SEC by holding opponents to 20.3 points per game and limited offenses to 5.5 yards per play in conference games. Youth and roster turnover have contributed to South Carolina’s defensive struggles this year, and it’s unlikely this unit will get drastically better until 2015. The Gamecocks have allowed at least 30 points in four out their five SEC games this season. And the problems extend deeper into the stat sheet, as South Carolina is last in the SEC in sacks per game and near the bottom in third down defense. Considering its playmakers on offense, Auburn should have no trouble eclipsing that mark on Saturday. But can the Gamecocks get timely stops to give their offense a chance to keep pace with the Tigers? Whether it’s on the ground or through the air, opposing offenses have provided a lot of headaches for coordinator Lorenzo Ward. Stopping Auburn is a huge challenge for a young South Carolina defense.
2. Mike Davis Against Auburn’s Front Seven
Under the direction of veteran coordinator Ellis Johnson, Auburn’s defense has made strides on the stat sheet this season. The Tigers ranked near the bottom of the SEC in yardage and scoring defense last year but made timely stops on third downs and in the red zone. This year, Auburn is holding opponents to 22 points per game in SEC contests (29.6 in 2013). And after giving up 5.9 yards per play in 2013, the Tigers are limiting opponents to just 4.8 yards per play. Both of those numbers showcase the impact Johnson has made on the defense, along with the development of some of the players within the system. This unit held LSU to seven points and limited Kansas State to 14 on Sept. 18. However, the Tigers allowed 38 in a loss to Mississippi State – the best offense they have played this year – so there will be room for South Carolina to have success. The Gamecocks feature a veteran offensive line and one of the SEC’s top running backs in Mike Davis. Auburn allowed Arkansas and Mississippi State to average over five yards per carry, and Davis could easily eclipse that mark on Saturday night. The junior needs to have success on early downs, allowing quarterback Dylan Thompson to take a few shots downfield. Getting Davis on track is critical, as South Carolina would like to limit Auburn’s overall possessions and keep Gus Malzahn’s offense on the sidelines.
3. Auburn QB Nick Marshall
As we mentioned above, it’s going to be a challenge for South Carolina to completely stop Auburn. Instead, the Gamecocks have to make timely stops and force field goals instead of touchdowns when the Tigers get into the red zone. Achieving that goal starts with finding a way to slow down quarterback Nick Marshall. The senior has passed for 964 yards and 10 touchdowns so far this season and has 492 yards and four scores on the ground. With the arrival of receiver Duke Williams, Marshall now has two legitimate All-SEC threats on the outside. South Carolina’s secondary has been prone to giving up big plays – nine plays allowed of 30 yards or more in seven games. Even though Marshall has more weapons this year, his completion percentage has declined from 59.4 to 55.4. On paper, this should be a good matchup for Auburn’s offense, and Marshall should have a huge outing. However, against Mississippi State, the senior tossed two picks. Even though the Tigers are a heavy favorite, they can’t afford turnovers to help keep South Carolina in this game.
Auburn is nearly a three-touchdown favorite for Saturday night. That seems a bit much, but the Tigers are loaded with weapons on offense, starting with two potential All-SEC receivers, along with standouts at running back in Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant. Quarterback Nick Marshall played well against LSU but struggled against Mississippi State. The senior needs to play another mistake-free game, and if he does, he should have a huge statistical outing against a struggling South Carolina defense. While the Gamecocks need a perfect effort to win, quarterback Dylan Thompson and running back Mike Davis should be enough to at least keep the pressure on Auburn’s defense deep into the second half. However, Auburn simply has too many weapons and pulls away in the fourth quarter.