Gamecocks look to snap eight-game losing streak to Tigers with both teams out to prove themselves
Auburn and South Carolina enter Saturday's game in pretty precarious situations as neither team has lit the world on fire so far. The Tigers (2-1) come in having barely escaped an upset bid by Arkansas (Was that a backward pass or a fumble?) and the Gamecocks (1-2) finally got a W by handling hapless Vanderbilt.
Auburn was ranked No. 8 in the preseason but has not really looked the part since, including getting a beatdown at Georgia two weeks ago. The Tigers' road to redemption would have to start here. For the Gamecocks, coming off a 4-8 season, they've had some bright spots. But finding wins in their remaining slate is going to be tough.
Auburn at South Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 17 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Auburn -3
When Auburn Has the Ball
Gus Malzahn in the white-hot spotlight. The "mad scientist" behind all those high-powered Tiger offenses is coming under some scrutiny, even if he's no longer calling the shots. Following the addition of former Arkansas head coach Chad Morris as offensive coordinator and play-caller, this year was supposed to be the year that Bo Nix went stratospheric and the War Eagle side of the scoreboard would malfunction from a pile of points each quarter. The results so far? Through three games, Nix and this attack have looked very pedestrian. The second-year quarterback is hitting just 57 percent of his passes (14th in the SEC) for a very tepid 6.3 yards per attempt (10th). Simply put, Morris and Malzahn need to groom more weapons. Anthony Schwartz (10) and Seth Williams (3) were the only receivers to record any receptions on the stat sheet vs. Arkansas last week.
Continue the running game. Malzahn said it before the Arkansas game, the Tigers must have some success on the ground if this team is going to re-establish its identity on offense. The Tigers started clicking as the ground game netted 259 yards at 6.3 yards per carry with Tank Bigsby (146 yards) and D.J. Williams (71 yards) leading the way against the Razorbacks. That kind of production to help keep Nix out of obvious passing situations will be vital this week.
The "Fire Ant" defense is back. Yeah, I know the reference is going really old school (think Joe Morrison era). But the Gamecocks are pinning their ears back on that side of the ball. Last year South Carolina was 12th in the SEC against both the run and pass, but so far in 2020, the Gamecocks are third in the conference (18th in FBS) in total defense (330.3 ypg) and limiting teams to 25.3 points per game. Most impressive of all, they've held opponents to 6-of-31 on third down.
When South Carolina Has the Ball
Don't be Shi. Against Tennessee and Florida, the Collin Hill-to-Shi Smith connection was lethal with the senior wide receiver totaling 22 catches for 225 yards and two touchdowns in those two games alone. Last week, Smith recorded just four grabs in the easy win over Vanderbilt. Certainly he wasn't needed against the Commodores, but he will need to step back up against a shaky Auburn pass defense that enters this game in the middle of the pack in the SEC (265.7 ypg allowed, 7th) with six touchdown passes given up compared to just one interception.
Put everything on the line. South Carolina is 66th (out of 76 teams) in the nation in sacks allowed as Collin Hill has been taken down 10 times (with 20 QB hurries) already this season. (By contrast, his defense has just seven sacks and one QB hurry.) Hill, a Colorado State transfer, has been very accurate with a 64 percent completion rate and just one interception in 110 attempts. Also, after mustering just 206 rushing yards in the first two games the Gamecocks plowed Vanderbilt for 289 yards on the ground. So owning the line of scrimmage and protecting Hill will be the win-or-lose proposition vs. Auburn.
Kevin Steele, you're in the white-hot spotlight too. Auburn has played three games against some low-powered offenses (Kentucky, Georgia and Arkansas) and yet the Tigers give up 421 yards per game, which is eighth in the SEC. Not bad, right? But consider the offensive juggernauts that lie ahead (Ole Miss, Alabama, LSU, etc). This will be the Auburn defensive coordinator's last chance to shore up some hiccups before things get really serious.
The problem with the conference-only scheduling is that there are no marshmallows to snack on between SEC bouts. Every game is a potential loss. Auburn is favored in this game but might not be favored in any other matchup the remainder of the season. That's a daunting proposition for Tiger fans who have seen their team lose four or more games in six straight seasons.
Bo Nix is 8-1 with 11 touchdowns and zero interceptions when playing at home and 3-4 with nine TDs and seven picks on the road. He still hasn't shaken that vulnerability of youth, so I'm going to go with a mild upset here.
Prediction: South Carolina 24, Auburn 21
Podcast: Week 7 Preview and Predictions
— Written by Eric Sorenson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He is a college football, college baseball and college hockey addict... and writer. Follow him on Twitter @Stitch_Head.