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Vanderbilt Commodores vs. South Carolina Gamecocks Preview and Prediction

Pharoh Cooper

Pharoh Cooper

With the focus of the week on Steve Spurrier’s resignation, the actual game between South Carolina and Vanderbilt seems secondary.

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Related: 10 Coaching Candidates to Replace Steve Spurrier at South Carolina

But there is a game in Columbia this Saturday, starting a new era in Gamecocks football, however long or short, behind interim head coach Shawn Elliott.

It also will establish who the worst team in the SEC is this year.

Spurrier took the final verbal shot of his coaching career when he mentioned in the postgame press conference following the Gamecocks’ 45-24 loss to LSU, “I think we have a team next week which we match up better with” when referring to the Commodores, but turned the comment into a compound sentence when he added, “but we’ll have to wait and see.”

Both teams enter this contest at 2-4. The two teams have played one common opponent, Georgia, and while the Commodores lost 31-14 and were outgained by only 22 yards (422-400), the Gamecocks fell 52-20 to the Bulldogs and were outgained by more than 300 (576-258).

It’s been less than two years since these two programs’ previous head coaches enjoyed unprecedented success at their locales. Both teams have fallen fast, and the possibility exists this game is “must-win” for both Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason and Elliott to return to their current helms next year.

Vanderbilt at South Carolina

Kickoff: 4 p.m. ET

TV: SEC Network

Spread: South Carolina -2.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Who plays quarterback for South Carolina, and when?

Perry Orth gets his third start of the season and second straight for South Carolina. Though he has not been spectacular, he did have his best game against LSU when he completed 14-of-28 passes for 200 yards.

More importantly, it seemed like for the first time this season he was able to get the ball to Pharoh Cooper for longer routes, resulting in a 43-yard touchdown reception in the third quarter that kept the game competitive, part of a season-high 105-yard game for the SEC’s second-leading receiver.

But initial starter Connor Mitch might be available after sitting since the second week of the season with a shoulder separation, and Lorenzo Nunez, who missed last week’s game with a sprained shoulder, also practiced this week.

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The decision of who will lead the Gamecocks under center and when figures to be Elliott’s first as head coach, and it will likely define his tenure.

2. Can Vanderbilt capitalize on opportunities for a change?

When looking through the Commodores’ stats, it’s somewhat surprising they have a losing record. Vanderbilt is averaging more than 400 total yards a game. Sophomore wide receiver Trent Sherfield has been a breakout performer, leading the conference with 34 catches while averaging 13.7 yards per reception. In a down year for SEC quarterbacks, Johnny McCrary is second behind only Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly as the conference’s total offense leader.

But Vanderbilt hasn’t scored a first half touchdown all season against an opponent other than FCS member Austin Peay.

Elliott’s reported high energy aside, after all South Carolina has been through recently — the losing, the injuries, the relocation of a home game, the coaching change — the Gamecocks have the makings of a team that would lie down if they got behind early.

But a few stops early on, and with a home crowd egging them on, South Carolina could win the battle of emotion. That said, all four victories enjoyed by these two teams have been come-from-behind affairs. Vanderbilt even trailed Austin Peay 7-3 early before scoring the final 44 points against the Governors. Still, it would seem the Commodores are better equipped to come from behind because of Sherfield, and South Carolina’s defense has often been porous since Jadeveon Clowney left for the NFL.

3. Can South Carolina run the ball? Who will run the ball?

The Commodores’ 3-4 defense, led by defensive end Caleb Azubike, is one of the best rushing defenses in the country statistically.

But a closer look also indicates that while the defense has dominated the likes of Austin Peay, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee, this unit allowed 133 yards to Ole Miss running back Jalen Walton and 189 to Georgia’s Nick Chubb.

Where does that leave the Gamecocks? Starting running back Brandon Wilds was a game-time scratch last week with his rib injury, but Shon Carson has matched Wilds’ impressive stats when subbing for him. David Williams, who leads the Gamecocks in carries this year, not so much.

Final Analysis

If there is one aspect to this game not covered above giving one team a significant advantage over another, it might be special teams. While Vanderbilt employs the same player to handle both kickoffs and punt returns, South Carolina’s Rashad Fenton returned a kickoff for a touchdown last week against LSU. The Gamecocks also enjoy a significant statistical advantage in return yards. But significant field position battles are often gained through turnovers, not kicks.

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Often times baseball teams will fire their manager in an attempt to give their club a midseason spark. There’s the chance that could happen for South Carolina, and there’s also the chance Spurrier’s resignation could send the Gamecocks into collapse for the rest of 2015.

Frankly, there may not be another game left on Vanderbilt’s schedule it can win. South Carolina at least still has The Citadel left on its slate.

Both teams suddenly now realize without the primo coaches they once employed, their programs seem very ordinary. They may choose to rectify that in 2016, but until then...

Prediction: Vanderbilt 24, South Carolina 20

— 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.