It's Desperation Saturday at Williams-Brice Stadium as the Auburn Tigers and South Carolina Gamecocks will get together in what is a critical game for both teams. For Auburn (6-4, 3-3 SEC), the Tigers need something positive after a rough couple of losses along with a season-ending ankle injury to quarterback Bo Nix. South Carolina (5-5, 2-5) needs to get this win to secure bowl eligibility as the the Gamecocks are in the early stages of a rebuilding project under first-year head coach Shane Beamer. The program did deal with some speculation about Beamer, as his name came up as a potential candidate for the Virginia Tech opening. Beamer shot down that conversation on Tuesday reaffirming that South Carolina is his "dream job."
One of the worst meltdowns in Auburn's history occured at Jordan-Hare Stadium last Saturday against Mississippi State. The Tigers raced out to a 28-10 lead at halftime but imploded in the second half in all three phases before eventually falling 43-34. The defense couldn’t find a way to slow down Bulldogs quarterback Will Rogers, who threw five touchdown passes in the second half while only throwing two incomplete passes. The injury to Nix played a big part in the offense stalling out in the second half. Auburn also lost kicker Anders Carlson for the rest of the season after he tore his ACL in the game.
South Carolina couldn’t capitalize on the momentum from the dominant Florida win, as the Gamecocks fell 31-28 at Missouri in the battle for the Mayor’s Cup. Tigers running back Tyler Badie was too much for South Carolina's defense to handle, as he gashed the Gamecocks for 209 yards and a touchdown on 34 carries. The lack of a consistent running game was an issue for Beamer's team. They managed just 57 yards on the ground against a Mizzou defense that ranks second to last in the country against the run. Turnovers were another problem with a pair of fumbles and an interception by quarterback Jason Brown. South Carolina must clean things up if it wants any chance to beat Auburn or Clemson next Saturday.
Auburn at South Carolina
Kickoff: Sat Nov. 20 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: Auburn -7.5
When Auburn Has the Ball
Head coach Bryan Harsin faces his most difficult challenge of the season as far as getting his team ready to play is concerned. Regardless of who starts at quarterback, it would be in the best interest of the Tigers to keep it simple early on in this game. T.J. Finley will replace Nix at quarterback, and he's already led the Tigers to a come-from-behind win over Georgia State earlier this season. Finley is not as mobile as Nix, so it will be up to offensive coordinator Mike Bobo to take some stress off him. The best way for Bobo to get this done is to feed running back Tank Bigsby, who is seventh in the SEC with 776 rushing yards to go along with nine touchdowns on the ground. He's averaging right around five yards per carry. Kobe Hudson and Demetris Robinson will need to step up for Finley in the passing game. The two have combined for 66 catches, 907 yards, and five touchdowns.
On defense, South Carolina has done a great job of forcing turnovers with 22 takeaways, which leads the conference and is tied for fifth nationally. Jaylan Foster has a team-leading five interceptions, and he sets the tone for the rest of the defense. Zacch Pickens (3.5 sacks) leads a balanced pass rush. It will be crucial for the Gamecocks to generate pressure on Finley early and often. If this happens, it increases the likelihood of him making a poor or forced throw. A turnover would set up South Carolina with prime field position and take a ton of pressure off the offense that has had its challenges at times this season moving the football.
When South Carolina Has the Ball
It starts with playing sound, disciplined football on Saturday night for the Gamecocks offense. This team has had issues with turnovers, coughing it up nearly as many times (21) as the defense has taken it away. Fumbles (13 lost) have been a particular bugaboo and are a reason why South Carolina is ahead of only Vanderbilt in terms of total and scoring offense in the SEC. The Gamecocks may be catching a slight break this time, however, as Auburn has only generated eight turnovers (five interceptions, three fumbles) in 10 games.
For South Carolina, Brown needs to step up in the pocket and be assertive with his decision-making. If Brown can find his rhythm early, it would take pressure off of an offensive line that has underachieved throughout most of the season. The one exception is the Florida game, when the Gamecocks ran for 284 yards. So the potential is there, it's just a matter of everyone getting on the same page and giving maximum effort.
Last Saturday, ZaQuandre Wright was the most effective ground-gainer, picking up 60 yards with a touchdown on 10 carries against Missouri. Wright is South Carolina's leading rusher this season with 462 yards on 65 carries (7.1 ypc). Kevin Harris, who led the SEC with 113.8 rushing yards per game last season, has been hampered by injuries and just hasn't been able to get it going. He's averaging just four yards per carry on a team-high 100 rushing attempts.
Auburn's defense needs to not dwell on last week's second-half collapse and let it carry over into this game. The best way for the Tigers to get back on track is to dominate the line of scrimmage and stifle the Gamecocks on the ground. Auburn is fifth in the SEC in rushing defense, giving up 130 yards per game. Brown hasn't played that much and is only completing 57 percent of his pass attempts while averaging 6.7 yards per attempt. The Tigers have had some trouble with aerial attacks (16 TDs, 5 INTs), but South Carolina doesn't possess the same firepower as other teams Auburn has already faced. It would be in the Tigers' best interests to try and force Brown to beat them with his arm.
Auburn is going to take a couple of early punches from South Carolina in the first half. But the Tigers will find a way to avoid falling into a deep hole and keep the game close. Finley should eventually find his groove and put up decent numbers, although the Gamecocks have been pretty solid against the pass, statistically speaking. The running game could be the difference here as it will help slow down South Carolina's pass rush. The Tigers avoid another second-half letdown and costly turnovers to get the job done in Columbia on Saturday night.
Prediction: Auburn 33, South Carolina 24
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