When Kentucky (1-0) travels to South Carolina(1-0) the very identities of the two teams’ seasons are at stake. The winner will likely be in position for at least a minor bowl game and perhaps dark horse contender status in the SEC East. The loser is probably going to be perceived as the sixth-best team in the division, ahead of only Vanderbilt.
Traditionally this is a slot Kentucky is familiar with, but the Wildcats enjoyed a 45-38 victory against the Gamecocks last season and even defeated South Carolina during the Gamecocks’ only divisional winning season, 2010.
The Wildcats have not, however, won a conference game on the road since 2010.
Kentucky at South Carolina
Kickoff: 7:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBSC, Direct TV 221
Spread: South Carolina – 7 1/2, O/U 55.5
Things to watch
1. Connor Mitch and the South Carolina quarterback situation
Mitch was just 9-of-22 for 122 yards in his first Gamecocks start last week, though he did not throw an interception. But North Carolina’s defense was porous last year and Kentucky’s doesn’t figure to be a whole lot better, having blown a 23-point lead to Louisiana-Lafayette last week.
South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier traditionally has yanked his quarterbacks on a frequent basis and did play Perry Orth long enough for him to throw two passes, both completions, against the Tar Heels. If Mitch doesn’t improve fast we’ll likely see the same kind of quarterback juggling from Spurrier that was a staple of his coaching before the Connor Shaw era.
One thing is for certain, Pharoh Cooper must catch more than three passes a game this season for the Gamecocks to be a factor the SEC in 2015.
2. Is Kentucky really improved?
Wildcats fans have been circling this game as a victory for some time, but the offense that was supposed to be on the field for 85 plays a game only made it to 60 and had just 22:55 of possession time against the Ragin Cajuns. Kentucky was outgained 479-435 from a team from the Sun Belt Conference.
Offenses like the one Kentucky wishes to play often have difficultly protecting leads. Running Stanley "Boom Williams" ran for 135 yards on 10 total carries, with only two of those coming after Kentucky took a 33-10 lead late in the third quarter. He didn't get another attempt even when the Wildcats were protecting their lead late in the game.
Then again, there is the school of thought Kentucky kept things under wraps against a weaker opponent in the hopes of not showcasing secrets once SEC play began. Freshman tight end C.J. Conrad didn’t catch a pass. Kentucky didn’t play their Wildcat offense (how inappropriate!). And quarterback Patrick Towles threw three touchdowns and for more than 300 yards, while showing some ability to succeed in the clutch by completing a 12-yard pass on 3rd-and-3 from his own 39 in the game-winning touchdown drive before recovering his own fumble and picking up the first down on a sneak from midfield on the following play.
Still, it took two major penalties for 25 yards on Louisiana-Lafayette for the Wildcats to score on their 58-yard victory drive with four and a half minutes remaining. Kentucky allowed 247 yards on the ground to a team without a scrambling quarterback, whereas South Carolina gained 254 yards and had a third-string back score the winning touchdown on a 48-yard run in the fourth quarter.
3. South Carolina’s secondary against Kentucky’s fine receivers
There are two ways to look at the Gamecocks' defensive effort against North Carolina.
They had a clutch performance with three interceptions and four sacks, holding a high-scoring team to just 13 points and allowed only 232 yards through the air.
They were lucky and were outgained in the game.
The thought here is the former. Mitch’s inconsistency was the reason the Gamecocks were outgained, and the defense, led by linebacker Shai Moore’s 11 tackles and two interceptions, made enough splash plays to throw UNC off balance for the majority of the game.
But Kentucky had six receivers average more than 11 yards a catch against Louisiana-Lafayette, led by Garrett Johnson, who had five catches for 85 yards and a touchdown. A strong pass rush can be overcome with quick drops and a strong running game, and if Kentucky takes a significant lead early on there is the question if Mitch is capable of leading the Gamecocks back from a two-touchdown deficit once defenses can focus on Cooper.
South Carolina had a more impressive victory against a stronger team in its opener, was projected as a better team at the start of the season, and hasn’t lost at home to the Wildcats in this century. Picking Kentucky is just a little more out-of-the-box than practical.
Prediction: South Carolina 31, Kentucky 24
— Written by Marky Billson, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. An experienced beat reporter and sports writer, Billson began contributing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2000. He has covered the Steelers, Pitt Panthers, MLB and more during his career. Follow him on Twitter @MarkyBillson.