Like no other sport, college football provides a landscape of plot twists with dramatic turns leaving the fans on their toes. Another hard-fought thriller is on the way in Baton Rouge come Saturday when the South Carolina Gamecocks (2-2) take on the LSU Tigers (1-2) in an SEC cross-divisional showdown.
Preseason bets in Vegas would have had LSU entering this game as the better team with a winning record. As is, South Carolina has played tougher teams and seeks to rise above .500 on the season with a feather-in-the-cap road win against one of the nation's top programs. The Will Muschamp-guided Gamecocks have always been scrappy, and that reputation lives on falling to No. 16 Tennessee (31-27) and No. 3 Florida (38-24) but rebounding for wins over Vanderbilt (41-7) and No. 15 Auburn (30-22). The last time the Gamecocks won three consecutive conference games was in 2017 (Arkansas, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt); can they recapture that magic in 2020?
Whatever offerings given to the football gods for LSU's perfect 2019 season are being collected in a hurry in 2020. Even with heavy losses to the NFL and from players opting out on the season, the Tigers do not look like the Tigers in key parts of the game, namely running the ball and playing defense. An unscheduled open date last week pushed play Florida to Dec. 12 and allowed LSU the opportunity to heal and improve on executing their schemes. Yet to play a ranked opponent, the Tigers are limping out of the gate with a long way to go to the finish line.
South Carolina at LSU
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 24 at 7 p.m. ET
Spread: LSU -6
When South Carolina Has the Ball
In coordinator Mike Bobo's first season in Columbia, the Gamecocks are showing improvements, especially scoring the ball, up eight points on average from a year ago to 30.5 per game. But with an offense that has not statistically changed in moving the ball down the field (371.9 to 372.5 ypg) how are they doing it? Their defense is putting the offense in position to put up points. Against Auburn, the Gamecocks picked off three Bo Nix passes, two by corner Jaycee Horn, with all three possessions resulting in points on the board.
Auburn statistically outperformed South Carolina offense versus offense. The Tigers held South Carolina to 297 total yards with 153 coming on the ground and 144 by Colorado State quarterback transfer Collin Hill in the passing game. The differences in the game, USC controlled the clock holding onto the ball for 31 minutes and 17 seconds, committed four fewer penalties for 50 fewer yards, kept drives alive on 7-of-13 opportunities, and won the turnover battle (3-1). The Gamecocks also converted on all four red-zone appearances and played flawlessly in the kicking game.
The secret sauce to USC's offense is running back Kevin Harris and receiver Shi Smith. Harris a workhorse tailback who is netting 5.0 yards per carry and capable of wearing down defenses for four quarters. Third in the SEC in rushing yards (409), he is behind only Alabama's Najee Harris in carries (81) and touchdowns (6). After the loss to Tennessee, Bobo upped Harris' touches to 20-plus per game and is getting the desired results with 100-yard performances against Florida (100) and Vanderbilt (171). Smith has big-play potential, but as Hill's top target, he is routinely drawing double-teams limiting his explosive plays. The senior wideout is third in-conference in receptions (34), seventh in yards (347), and tied for seventh in receiving scores (3). Senior tight end Nick Muse can make plays when adequately targeted.
When LSU Has the Ball
The Tigers have been moving the ball up and down the field at a prolific rate: 467.3 yards per game with 38.7 points per game. All that play-making ability is likely lost on Saturday with quarterback Myles Brennan expected to sit this one out. Reports have Brennan with a torn abdominal muscle, which leaves true freshmen TJ Finley or Max Johnson to run the offense. Finley is the tall-big armed quarterback while Johnson is the more athletic field general capable of running LSU's zone-read plays. With neither quarterback separating themselves in practice from the other, expect both to get their first collegiate snaps against USC.
If LSU cannot count on Brennan to post his 370.7 yards per game in the aerial attack, a greater reliance will fall on one of the nation's worst rushing attacks to carry the load. Of the 77 FBS programs that have played so far this season, LSU ranks 73rd in rush yards (96.7). Tyrion Davis-Price and John Emery Jr. are both barely over the 100-yard rushing mark for the season and have the Tigers' only two scores on the ground. South Carolina has been strong against the run, holding teams to 124.5 yards per game. Can LSU's line rise to the occasion?
Had LSU played Florida last week, chances are they may have been without Brennan and their top two targets in Terrace Marshall Jr. and true freshman tight end Arik Gilbert. If Marshall (foot) plays, he is one of the SEC’s best with 21 receptions for 424 yards and scores, which is tied for the conference lead. Gilbert has been a third-down go-to target, securing 14 passes for 177 yards with two touchdowns. The Gamecocks are not without their own injury problems, though, especially on defense. Cornerback Israel Mukuamu (groin), end Aaron Sterling (knee), and linebacker Sherrod Greene (hip) are all questionable for Saturday's game.
In a battle of the war-torn teams, this matchup promises to be a tooth-and-nail fight down to the finish. LSU's inexperienced roster got a lucky break last week when the trip to the Swamp was pushed back. With the added practice time, have the Tigers' coaching staff set their program up for success?
In any other season, a night game in Death Valley would provide that extra push to help LSU to a victory, but this is 2020. If we know anything about the Gamecocks, they will fight to the end for Muschamp. South Carolina may not be pretty, but going into this one, it has more knowns in their corner that add up to a win. LSU's only hope is one of their true freshmen quarterbacks plays out of their minds or one of their backs has a breakout 200-yard effort controlling the game.
Prediction: South Carolina 28, LSU 21
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— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.