The Vanderbilt Commodores (3-4, 0-4 SEC) will make their way to Columbia to face the South Carolina Gamecocks (5-2, 3-2 SEC) on Saturday evening. Both teams enter the divisional clash fresh off a bye week. And no one needed an open date more than Vanderbilt. After giving up just 13 points total en route to a 3-0 start to the season, Derek Mason's Commodores have now lost each of their last four contests, giving up an average of 50 points per game in the process. To make matters worse, all four of those losses came against SEC opponents, leaving the Commodores winless in conference play. They still have time to get their season back on track, but it must start on Saturday.
Things haven’t gone perfectly for the Gamecocks either, but despite all the key injuries and lackluster play at times, Will Muschamp continues to find ways to put a winning product on the field. South Carolina currently resides in second place in the SEC East following its 15-9 victory over Tennessee. The Gamecocks will now look to solidify their standing within the division by extending a two-game conference winning streak at home against Vanderbilt. More importantly, a victory also makes South Carolina bowl eligible.
Saturday’s matchup will mark the 27th meeting all time between the two schools. South Carolina holds a 22-4 edge in the series and the Gamecocks have won eight in a row against Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt at South Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 28 at 4 p.m. ET
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: South Carolina -7
Three Things to Watch
1. South Carolina runs wild?
The ground game has completely disappeared at times for the Gamecocks during the first half of the season, resulting in a disappointing 110.9 rushing yards per game (13th in the SEC). It doesn’t help matters that starting running back Rico Dowdle is now sidelined with a broken leg. That said, South Carolina may have a golden opportunity to flourish on the ground against a generous Vanderbilt run defense on Saturday.
Vanderbilt has allowed a ridiculous 18 rushing touchdowns and 347 ground yards per game over its last four contests. That number is a bit skewed by matchups against the potent ground games of Alabama and Georgia. But even a bad Ole Miss rushing attack that had been averaging just 76 rushing yards per game prior to facing Vanderbilt managed to rack up 252 yards and three touchdowns on the ground.
The Commodores likely spent much of their time and effort during the bye week making corrections to their leaky run defense. And while they may show some improvement in that regard, it will come as a surprise if Ty’Son Williams and A.J. Turner don’t turn in season-best performances. South Carolina starting offensive linemen Zack Bailey, Cory Helms and Malik Young are all expected to return from injury this week following lengthy absences as well. This should further enhance the Gamecocks’ chances for a big day on the ground.
2. Can Ralph Webb keep it going?
The first half of the season was nothing short of abysmal for Vanderbilt’s all-time leading rusher. Webb ran for 245 yards over the first six games, averaging just 40.8 yards per game. The good news is that he finally managed to end the drought with a 163-yard, two-touchdown performance against Ole Miss. That should provide a much-needed boost of confidence, even if it did come at the expense of the worst run defense in the SEC. The question now is, can a well-rested Webb keep that momentum going against South Carolina?
While the matchup against a middle-of-the-road South Carolina run defense (allowing 142 ypg) has its favorable aspects, Webb’s body of work against the Gamecocks leaves plenty of room for skepticism. In three prior starts against them, he has never rushed for more than 97 yards. Webb has never scored a single touchdown against the Gamecocks, either. And given the lack of running room that his offensive line has provided throughout this season, the talented running back will probably have his work cut out for him against a South Carolina team that has largely held him in check throughout an otherwise stellar career.
3. The passing game
An effective passing game will be crucial for both teams on Saturday. That is particularly true for Vanderbilt, which may find running room hard to come by. And while junior quarterback Kyle Shurmur hasn’t been at his best of late, completing just 45 percent of his passes over the last four games, his 14-2 touchdown-to-interception ratio on the season is exceptional. Shurmur has a promising opportunity on Saturday against a South Carolina pass defense that ranks 11th in the SEC and 80th in the FBS.
South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley could be in for a challenge against a Vanderbilt pass defense that ranks third in the SEC and 11th nationally. However, Vanderbilt's lofty ranking against the pass should be taken with a grain of salt, considering that opposing teams have heavily favored a ground attack against the Commodores' leaky run defense. Additionally, the Vanderbilt pass defense was torched in its last game against Ole Miss, allowing 351 yards and four touchdowns through the air. If WR Bryan Edwards and TE Hayden Hurst do their part, Bentley should find some success against this defense.
Last week’s open date could work in either team's favor in this matchup. However, it may prove critical for a Vanderbilt team that just hasn’t been the same since suffering a demoralizing 59-0 loss to Alabama at home. The question is, can the Commodores rekindle the passion and return to early season form following the bye week? If the answer is yes, then Vanderbilt should give the Gamecocks all they can handle on Saturday.
The problem is that it’s difficult to give a struggling Vanderbilt team the benefit of the doubt based on a hypothetical. And even if the Commodores can somehow regain their mojo, they will be facing a resilient South Carolina team on the road that has beaten them eight consecutive times. The fact of the matter is that the Gamecocks continue to find ways to win, even if they don’t always look good doing it.
Prediction: South Carolina 34, Vanderbilt 24
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.