The Thursday night matchup between Vanderbilt and South Carolina isn’t likely to register as one of the best games for Week 1, but there’s plenty at stake for these two teams. Tennessee, Georgia and Florida are widely considered to be the top three teams in the East, with a significant gap to the next four programs – Kentucky, Missouri, Vanderbilt and South Carolina. The Gamecocks and Commodores aren’t going to unseat any of the top three teams in the final pecking order, but Thursday night’s game could play a huge role in determining which program finishes fourth in the East and challenges for a bowl game.
After a disastrous 2015 season (3-9 final record), South Carolina is hitting the reset button under new coach Will Muschamp. The Gamecocks return only six starters and enter the 2016 campaign with major question marks surround both sides of the ball. Muschamp hired a standout staff and is known for his ability to attract talent and build a strong defense. However, his last stint (Florida) in the SEC ended with his firing. Is Muschamp a changed coach for his second stint in this league?
One year ago, Vanderbilt was in a similar position to South Carolina. The Commodores went 3-9 in 2014 and finished winless in SEC play. However, coach Derek Mason made a few tweaks to the program after a disappointing debut, leading to marked improvement last fall. Vanderbilt finished 4-8 (2-6 in league play) in 2015, with three of those losses coming by nine points or less. Mason has this program moving in the right direction and a bowl bid is a reasonable expectation for 2016.
South Carolina owns a 21-4 series edge over Vanderbilt. After losing back-to-back matchups to the Commodores from 2007-08, the Gamecocks have won seven in a row in this annual SEC East battle.
South Carolina at Vanderbilt
Kickoff: Thursday, Sept. 1 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Vanderbilt -4.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The Quarterbacks
Points are expected to be a premium on Thursday night. Vanderbilt averaged only 15.2 points a game last year, while South Carolina was only slightly better, recording 21.9 per contest. Neither team is likely to show dramatic improvement on this side of the ball in 2016, but there are reasons to be optimistic. Sophomore Kyle Shurmur is a promising quarterback for coach Derek Mason and finished 2015 by throwing for a career best 209 yards and three scores against Tennessee. Shurmur should have a better command for the offense after his first full offseason with an opportunity to work as the No. 1 quarterback and could produce a breakout year. South Carolina has three passers vying for snaps this fall, as true freshmen Jake Bentley and Brandon McIlwain look to edge senior Perry Orth for the top spot on the depth chart. While Bentley could play at some point this season, McIlwain and Orth are expected to open 2016 as the team’s top options under center. Orth was placed into a difficult situation last year and threw 1,929 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first extended action. McIlwain ranked as a four-star recruit in the 2016 signing class and graduated in time to compete in spring practice. He brings more mobility to the offense than Orth and his ability to make plays with his legs could be a valuable asset for a unit lacking proven playmakers. There’s promise on both sides of the ball, but which quarterback steps up on Thursday night?
2. South Carolina’s Run Defense
Even if quarterback Kyle Shurmur takes a step forward in his development, the success of Vanderbilt’s offense is still going to depend heavily on the production of running back Ralph Webb. As a sophomore last fall, Webb ranked seventh among SEC rushers with 1,152 yards and finished 2015 by recording 100 or more yards in three out of Vanderbilt’s last four games. Stopping Webb has to be South Carolina’s top priority, which is easier said than done for a unit that surrendered 217.4 rushing yards a game last season. The Gamecocks return only two starters in the front seven and lost standout linebacker Skai Moore to injury for the entire 2016 campaign. There’s talent here for coach Will Muschamp to build around and develop after a disappointing 2015 season. For South Carolina to win on Thursday night, it has to stop Webb on early downs and force Shurmur into third-and-long situations.
3. Turnover Battle
With a tight game expected, a turnover or two could swing the momentum and final outcome of this matchup. Vanderbilt was minus-eight in turnover margin last season, including a minus-three mark in a 19-10 loss at South Carolina. The Gamecocks posted a plus-five mark overall but slipped to minus-one in SEC-only matchups. Will either of the young quarterbacks (Shurmur or McIlwain) make a critical mistake on Thursday night? Or can one of the defenses come up with a timely turnover?
Thursday night is just the first game for both teams, but there’s a lot at stake. The winner of this game has a good shot to go to a bowl game, while the loser faces an uphill battle to avoid the cellar in the East. A fresh start under Muschamp should help South Carolina, but there are new faces and question marks littering the depth chart on both sides of the ball. Vanderbilt enters its third season under Mason with some positive momentum, one of the SEC’s best defenses and an offense poised to improve with five returning starters. This one isn’t going to produce much in the way of offensive fireworks, but the Commodores get just enough from Shurmur and Webb to team with a solid performance by the defense to edge the Gamecocks.