When Saturday night arrives in Columbia, the South Carolina Gamecocks will be hopeful that their struggle against teams from Tennessee did not travel home with them when Vanderbilt comes to town. Will Muschamp's group (3-5, 2-4 SEC) is 2-2 at home this year, with the losses coming to top-10 conference opponents in Alabama and Florida with the wins against FCS opponent Charleston Southern and Kentucky. Only two of Vanderbilt's seven games thus far have been on the road, but it was tough sledding as the Commodores lost both by an average of 21.5 points.
The Commodores (2-5, 1-3) enter fresh off a bye week that allowed Derek Mason's group to spend a week of practice building on the momentum gained from their 21-14 win over Missouri in Nashville on Oct. 19. Meanwhile, South Carolina struggled mightily last week at Tennessee, the only unranked opponent the Gamecocks had seen in their last three games. In the 20-point loss at Neyland Stadium, the Gamecocks allowed more points to the Volunteers (41) than they had to either Georgia (17) or Florida (38) in the two weeks prior.
What South Carolina can hang its hat on is its total domination of Vanderbilt over the years. The Gamecocks enter on a 10-game win streak over the Commodores, having won every meeting since 2009 and 24 of the 28 all-time matchups. South Carolina won the inaugural meeting in 1961, but the teams didn't play again until 1992, which saw a 21-17 South Carolina win that began a six-game win streak in the series, one of three distinct win streaks of six or more games for the Gamecocks in this series.
Vanderbilt at South Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 2 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: South Carolina -15.5
When Vanderbilt Has the Ball
Saturday's seven-point win over Missouri was, comparatively speaking, a bright spot for Vanderbilt's offense, as the Commodores surpassed the 20-point mark for just the fourth time all season, and just the second time in a win. Mo Hasan went 7-for-11 passing for 120 yards and a touchdown before exiting with a concussion, and it's unsure if he'll be ready to suit up against South Carolina. In his place, original starter Riley Neal stepped back in and added 45 yards on three completions, throwing both a touchdown and an interception.
While the passing game is far from polished for Vanderbilt, the closest thing to a guarantee in that offense is Ke'Shawn Vaughn. Against Missouri, Vaughn rushed 29 times for 96 yards and a touchdown, pushing his season total over 700 yards. That number may not mean much at first, but consider that no other Commodore has even reached 100 rushing yards... for the season. Vaughn also is the second-leading receiver, with his 223 yards trailing only Kalija Lipscomb's 371. With the passing game suspect at best, especially pending Hasan's status, look for Vaughn to be the focal point on Saturday night.
Simply put, South Carolina's defense and special teams have to put last week's performance in the rearview mirror. The Gamecocks allowed the second-highest scoring total (and highest against an FBS opponent) that Tennessee had amassed all year, in addition to allowing the Volunteers to post nearly 500 yards of offense (351 yards passing, 139 rushing). But Tennessee also returned not one, but two punts for touchdowns, one for 65 yards and another for 29. While that admittedly is a rare feat, the discipline must improve going forward to ensure that the same result doesn’t happen again.
When South Carolina Has the Ball
Ryan Hilinski has not been shy about throwing the football in his freshman campaign, averaging 35.7 pass attempts per in his seven games in 2019. The numbers (216.7 ypg, eight touchdowns, and three interceptions) haven't been outstanding, but he put up 319 yards and a TD against Tennessee. Of his 28 completions, 19 went to either Shi Smith or Bryan Edwards, who combined for 239 yards with Smith hauling in Hilinski's only touchdown pass.
The South Carolina rushing attack that arrived in Knoxville averaging nearly 200 yards per game was stifled against Tennessee. As a team, the Gamecocks gained just 92 yards — largely on the strength of Tavien Feaster's 19 carries for 80 yards and a touchdown — but Hilinski's net loss of 14 yards lowered the already-feeble mark. Especially with a freshman quarterback at the helm, it will be important for this group to regain its pre-Tennessee momentum and help ease the pressure from its young signal-caller.
Vanderbilt's defense represents a prime opportunity for the Gamecocks to get that ground game back on track, as the Commodores have allowed 202.6 rushing yards per game this season. Vanderbilt ranks 101st or worse in scoring defense, rush defense, and pass defense, with its 456 total yards allowed among the bottom 20 teams nationally. As Hilinski grows in experience, a home game against a subpar defense provides an excellent chance to build his confidence for the final quarter of the season.
Despite the poor records on both sides, the difference in momentum is quite intriguing. South Carolina is coming off one of its worst games of the season, while Vanderbilt had a week to emphasize what worked against Missouri and carry that forward for the rest of the year. An SEC East clash under the lights on Saturday will offer an opportunity to see if the Gamecocks can turn things around or if the Commodores are able to maintain their winning ways after the bye.
Prediction: South Carolina 27, Vanderbilt 20
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Top photo courtesy of Vanderbilt Athletics)