September 28, 2012
We're just about 24 hours away from kickoff at Commonwealth Stadium. While most of the talk around Lexington this week has been about Kentucky's quarterback situation, South Carolina presents a tall task for the Wildcats. To better understand things, we brought in an expert.
1. Is Connor Shaw's health a real concern going forward, or is he expected to be 100 percent in time for the weekend?
Shaw's shoulder injury is one that USC's doctors and training staff have said cannot get any worse in terms of any structural damage. The biggest issue going forward is pain management. That's precisely why Shaw sat out the East Carolina game earlier this season. He felt good enough to start against UAB and while he did not perform well in that contest, it was chalked up primarily to lack of practice time and he also looked tentative running and passing. Steve Spurrier said that if needed Shaw could have actually played the second half against UAB.
Shaw showed he was healthy in the Missouri game by going 20/21 passing, and he did not look tentative at all running. He even busted an 80-yard touchdown run that was called back due to a phantom penalty, diving into the end zone while doing so. Shaw said he would have some soreness after that game, but he's expected to be fine. He showed no ill effects from the injury in that game.
2. How does the secondary look without Stephon Gilmore? Is that a unit Kentucky could exploit?
It's a group that I would say has performed better than expected, but to be fair they have not really been tested a lot so far this season. The secondary has allowed some guys to get past them, but for whatever reason opponents have not been able to connect down the field. Victor Hampton, USC's boundary corner, has been inconsistent tackling in open space and has taken some risks, but is a talented player. DJ Swearinger is all over the place from his free safety spot against the run and the pass. Brison Williams, the boundary safety is improved from last season and Jimmy Legree is at his more natural spot at corner and has been USC's best cover guy so far this season. One thing that obviously helps USC's secondary is the front seven, particularly the pass rush USC is able to generate.
Kentucky has some capable receivers and if Max Smith is healthy, a capable quarterback but Kentucky's key will be allowing him time to get the ball out of his hands.
3. The South Carolina offense has looked very different at times in the last few years. How much of Marcus Lattimore should Kentucky expect? Has any one receiver taken the role of go-to guy?
Steve Spurrier has made it no secret that SEC teams will see more of Lattimore than non-conference teams did earlier in the season. Traditionally, he has done some of his best work in the biggest games. USC's offense works best when the team is running the ball successfully, so that will be a goal for them in this game as it always is.
As for receiver, that was the big question mark with Alshon Jeffery gone to the NFL. Interestingly, a couple of smaller guys have emerged as USC's biggest-play receivers. Ace Sanders would have to be considered the number one guy. He was USC's second-leading receiver last year and is almost impossible to jam at the line of scrimmage because of his quickness. He's small, but shifty, can run, and has tremendous hands. He's also a threat returning punts. Bruce Ellington is also dangerous when he gets the ball in space. Tight end Buster Anderson has taken nearly half of his career receptions for touchdowns, and true freshman Shaq Roland is a downfield threat - he could see more playing time at some point this season.
4. The SEC East is the obvious goal for South Carolina this year. If they can beat Georgia next week and move ahead in the divisional race, how realistic is it for the Gamecocks to compete with LSU or Alabama? Can they make it to a BCS game?
South Carolina's schedule is incredibly difficult going forward. Having seven straight SEC games period is tough, but they drew a tough crowd in those seven games. Arkansas looks much more winnable than it did at the beginning of the season. I was shocked at how close the LSU/Auburn game was, but that's a night game for USC in Baton Rouge and will be a tough one. Tennessee and Georgia at home are also very tough, they have to go on the road at Florida and also play a Clemson team in a rivalry game.
If USC could somehow run the table on that schedule, they probably deserve a national title spot, win or lose in the SEC title game (a la Alabama last season, who ended up winning it all). There are still many questions to be answered for them, though and it's early in the season. I do think South Carolina has enough talent and coaching to compete with all of the teams left on the schedule, but going through the season unscathed would be a tremendously hard thing to do.
5. South Carolina has never been a heavier favorite in the SEC than they are this weekend. Any reason to think Kentucky can win?
Just looking at the matchups, there is not a lot of reason to think that, to be quite honest. However, there was not much reason to think that the Gamecocks would completely blow a big first half lead last time they played in Lexington. Things are different with both teams this time around, of course. I think USC has to be careful not to turn the ball over particularly deep in its own territory. USC's defensive line should be able to win the battle up front. In order for Kentucky to win this game, they are going to have play the best game of the season and USC will probably have to play its worst.