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Kentucky Wildcats vs. South Carolina Gamecocks Preview and Prediction

Deebo Samuel

Deebo Samuel

Williams-Brice Stadium will serve as the backdrop for an SEC East matchup between the Kentucky Wildcats and South Carolina Gamecocks on Saturday night. South Carolina leads the all-time series against Kentucky 17-10-1. However, Kentucky has won each of the last three matchups. And each of the last four games in the series has been decided by seven points or fewer.

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Kentucky enters Saturday’s matchup with a record of 2-0. But nothing has come easy for Mark Stoops’ Wildcats so far in 2017. After fending off a late comeback against Southern Miss, the Wildcats needed a come-from-behind effort of their own to knock off FCS member Eastern Kentucky last week at home. They now face an even bigger test as they travel to Columbia for their first SEC matchup of the season against a much-improved South Carolina team.

Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks also head into Saturday’s game at 2-0. They followed up a hard-fought win against NC State in Charlotte with an impressive 31-13 road victory over Missouri to garner their first conference win of the season. The Gamecocks now turn their attention to a Kentucky team that has gotten the best of them in each of the last three seasons. South Carolina will lean heavily on the friendly confines of Williams-Brice Stadium in its first home game of 2017. The question is, will it be enough to help end a three-game losing streak against the Wildcats?

Kentucky at South Carolina

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 16 at 7:30 p.m. ET

TV Channel: SEC Network

Spread: South Carolina -6.5

Three Things to Watch

1. A star is born

Deebo Samuel may have been the Gamecocks' best-kept secret heading into 2017, but the versatile playmaker is a secret no more. He has been a one-man highlight reel in the first two games, racking up 352 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns. Samuel has two 97-yard kickoff returns for touchdowns, two receiving touchdowns and added a 25-yard rushing touchdown to his resume’ last week against Missouri. He’s even starting to garner national attention as a Heisman candidate.

Kentucky will probably do its best to avoid kicking to Samuel on Saturday night, while the Wildcat defense will most likely throw everything but the kitchen sink at him when he is on offense. Conversely, the Gamecocks will be doing everything in their power to get the football into the hands of their triple-threat playmaker. And there is a good chance that Samuel will once again find a way to make his presence felt in a big way.

2. Denzil Ware

It would be an understatement to say that Ware (above, right), a hybrid defensive end/outside linebacker for the Wildcats, has left his imprint on the South Carolina series. As a redshirt freshman in 2015, Ware helped foil a potential game-tying 2-point conversion for the Gamecocks, returning a fumble the length of the field to lock up a 26-22 win for the Wildcats. As a sophomore last season, Ware had a huge impact in Kentucky’s 17-10 victory over South Carolina. He tallied five tackles, two sacks and two tackles for a loss in that matchup, earning SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors for his efforts.

The junior has already made his presence felt in 2017 as well. Ware was instrumental in the Wildcats' week 1 win over Southern Miss, forcing a fumble and recovering two fumbles, one of which he took for a touchdown. He would add a sack and a tackle for a loss in the 24-17 victory, once again earning SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors. Ware’s track record against the Gamecocks speaks for itself, and he is fully capable of wreaking havoc against them again on Saturday night.

3. The Kentucky ground game

The common theme during Kentucky’s three-game win streak against South Carolina has been the Wildcats’ overwhelming success running the football. They have averaged an impressive 221 rushing yards per game against the Gamecocks during that stretch. Kentucky ran for 216 yards and a pair of touchdowns against South Carolina last season, led by a trio of talented running backs — “Boom” Williams, Jo Jo Kemp and Benny Snell Jr.

Kentucky Wildcats RB Benny Snell Jr.

Williams and Kemp are no longer on the team. And a potent Kentucky rushing attack that averaged 234.2 rushing yards per game in 2016 has yet to return to form so far in 2017. The Wildcats rush offense currently ranks No. 83 nationally, averaging just 142.5 yards per contest in games against Southern Miss and Eastern Kentucky.

While Kentucky still has a very special talent in Snell, he might be less than 100 percent for this matchup (bruised ribs). Regardless, the sophomore will need to be much better than he has in the first two games of the season if the Wildcats want to keep their edge on the ground against South Carolina. Backup Sihiem King will need to step up in a big way as well. That might be a tall order against an improved Gamecocks run defense on the road.

Final Analysis

Aside from being at home, which is a big advantage on its own, there are a couple of reasons to like the Gamecocks in this matchup. For starters, the gap between Kentucky’s rushing attack and South Carolina’s run defense seems to have narrowed greatly. The Wildcats will probably still find some success on the ground with Benny Snell Jr., but it won’t be as significant as in years past.

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Additionally, key players such as Jake Bentley, Deebo Samuel, Skai Moore, Rico Dowdle and Ty’Son Williams were not on the field for the Gamecocks when Kentucky beat them in 2016. The Wildcats will have to contend with all of these major impact players on Saturday night. That should make all the difference as the Gamecocks put an end to a three-game losing streak against the Wildcats.

Prediction: South Carolina 27, Kentucky 17

— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.