The South Carolina Gamecocks will host the Vanderbilt Commodores on Saturday evening inside Williams-Brice Stadium for a matchup between first-year head coaches in search of their first SEC win.
Vanderbilt head coach Clark Lea has already led the Commodores to two more wins than they had all of last season. However, a loss to FCS East Tennessee State in the season opener was embarrassing, to say the least. And the Commodores have yet to score a single point in conference play – suffering a 62-0 loss at home against Georgia in week 4 and a 42-0 loss to Florida last Saturday in The Swamp. Vanderbilt sits at 2-4 overall and 0-2 in the SEC, looking to snap a 15-game conference losing streak with its first win against South Carolina since 2008.
The rigors of life in the SEC have proven difficult for first-year South Carolina head coach Shane Beamer as well. The Gamecocks are fortunate to be 3-0 against non-conference foes, but last Saturday's 45-20 loss to Tennessee in Knoxville is the most recent example of their struggles against SEC competition this season. Now 3-3 overall and 0-3 in the SEC, Beamer and his Gamecocks will aim for their first conference victory of the season on Saturday against the Commodores. If successful, South Carolina will snap a nine-game conference losing streak to secure its 100th SEC win all time.
Saturday's game will mark the 31st meeting all-time between South Carolina and Vanderbilt. The Gamecocks hold a substantial 26-4 lead in the series and have come away victorious in each of the last 12 meetings, including a 41-7 blowout win over the Commodores last season in Nashville.
Vanderbilt at South Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 16 at 4 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: South Carolina -18.5
When Vanderbilt Has the Ball
The Commodores are still searching for answers for a hapless offense that is averaging an FBS-worst 13.3 points per game and an SEC-worst 310.7 yards per game. Vanderbilt had hoped for a second-year surge from quarterback Ken Seals following a promising freshman campaign. Unfortunately, that hasn't come to fruition for the young signal-caller, who has completed just 55.3 percent of his pass attempts for 1,086 yards with five touchdowns and seven interceptions through six games. Seals also has the lowest passer rating (100.8) and the fewest yards per pass attempt (5.3) in the SEC. Sophomore wide receiver Will Sheppard has emerged as Seals' favorite target, hauling in a team-high 31 catches for 333 yards and two touchdowns, followed by wide receivers Chris Pierce Jr. (29 rec., 315 yds., TD), Devin Boddie Jr. (22, 191, TD), and Cam Johnson (20, 184, 2).
The Commodores need to get much more from a lackluster passing game that is averaging an SEC-worst 196.8 yards per game. And they will certainly have their hands full against a stingy South Carolina pass defense that ranks 12th nationally, giving up just 171.2 passing yards per contest. The opportunistic Gamecocks also lead the SEC with nine interceptions — led by defensive back Jaylan Foster with a conference-best four picks. Foster also leads his team in tackles (52) and forced fumbles (2). Cam Smith, South Carolina's best cover cornerback, is expected to return this week after sitting out last week with a head injury, which adds to the challenge for Vanderbilt's passing attack. And while the Commodores' offensive line has been decent in pass protection (11 sacks allowed), this group will be tested by a stout Gamecocks defensive front that produced six sacks just last week against Tennessee. All-SEC defensive lineman Kingsley Enagbare leads the Gamecocks with 3.5 sacks.
Vanderbilt's best chance for success offensively will likely come via the run game against a South Carolina defense that ranks 10th in SEC and 81st nationally, giving up 158.83 rushing yards per contest. That said, running room may still prove difficult to come by for a short-handed backfield, spearheaded by Rocko Griffin (64 att., 227 yds., TD) and Patrick Smith (33, 135), that is averaging a pedestrian 113.8 rushing yards per game, which ranks 12th in the SEC and 107th in the FBS.
When South Carolina Has the Ball
Quarterback Luke Doty has been largely unimpressive in leading a South Carolina offense that is still struggling to find its way, averaging 335.5 yards and 22 points per game. In four starts, Doty has completed 59.5 percent of his passes for 733 yards with three touchdowns and one interception. Wide receiver Josh Vann has been the bright spot for the passing game with a team-high 19 catches for 355 yards and two touchdowns. Wide receivers Jalen Brooks (14 rec., 181 yds., TD) and Dakereon Joyner (15, 122, TD) also have shown flashes despite their lack of consistency. Meanwhile, tight ends Jaheim Bell (10, 145, TD) and Nick Muse (10, 102, TD) have started to garner more attention in recent weeks.
The good news is that the South Carolina passing attack has a golden opportunity to gain some much-needed momentum on Saturday against a generous Vanderbilt pass defense. The Commodores rank dead last in the SEC, surrendering 251.8 yards per game through the air. Vanderbilt also has allowed 14 touchdown passes, more than any other SEC team. And an uninspiring pass rush has produced just three sacks. That said, the Commodores are in the top 20 nationally in third-down defense, which could be an issue for a South Carolina offense that has struggled to move the chains.
South Carolina was supposed to have one of the best rushing attacks in the conference this season with the return of Kevin Harris — the SEC's leading rusher from a season ago. But that has not been the case with the Gamecocks averaging 126.5 rushing yards per game. Harris has struggled to return to form following offseason back surgery, averaging just 3.4 yards per carry. But he is coming off of his best game yet with a 61-yard, two-touchdown performance against Tennessee last week. True freshman running back Juju McDowell has shown plenty of upside, rushing for 187 yards on 41 carries. And former 5-star running back MarShawn Lloyd has yet to live up to his lofty billing with just 125 yards on 36 attempts. While South Carolina has struggled to gain much traction with its rushing attack to this point, the Gamecocks should be able to find success on Saturday against a porous run defense. Vanderbilt ranks 13th in the SEC and 111th nationally in that regard, surrendering 199.7 rushing yards per game. The Commodores also are one of just two SEC defenses giving up more than five yards per carry.
Vanderbilt will likely score its first points of the season against an SEC opponent on Saturday. But that might be the only highlight for a struggling Commodores squad that hasn't won a conference game going on almost two years now. To make matters worse, Vanderbilt hasn't beaten South Carolina in Columbia since 2007. The Gamecocks have plenty of issues of their own, but they will have the superior football team in all three phases of this matchup. South Carolina and Shane Beamer get their first SEC win of the season, making easy work of the Commodores in front of the home crowd to snap a nine-game SEC losing streak.
Prediction: South Carolina 30, Vanderbilt 10
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— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.