The Palmetto State of South Carolina is one of my favorite places on earth. It has so many great things going on that it's hard to know where to begin -- great beaches, wonderful golf courses, beautiful country, warm weather, Southern grace. In fact, I like it so much that I see myself spending my later years there.
The University of South Carolina has always fancied itself a football school, but the reality of the situation is that most of the good football since the 1980's has been played southwest of Columbia at Clemson University. Of course, the two schools are bitter rivals, and it was partially this imbalance that Steve Spurrier was hired to correct. but in 3.5 years at USC, Spurrier has yet to contend for the SEC East championship or the SEC championship.
Be that as it may, the Gamecocks have owned Kentucky since 1999. Many of those years, South Carolina has simply been much better than the 'Cats owing to NCAA probation, but now the pendulum has swung and the two schools are very competitive talent-wise. In fact, no less than eight of Kentucky's players come from the Palmetto State, which produces many more good football players than the state of Kentucky. They include safety Matt Lentz and defensive end Ventrell Jenkins. South Carolina, on the other hand, boasts not one single player from the Bluegrass State.
Let's take a look at how this game unfolds:
The Kentucky offensive line has done a great job of protecting Mike Hartline, albeit against inferior competition. UK is leading the SEC in sacks allowed, with only two so far in five games. South Carolina, on the other hand, is last in the SEC in sacks allowed, averaging 3.6 per game for a total of 18.
Run blocking is harder to figure, but Kentucky and USC are 9th and 10th in the league, respectively, so we can safely say that neither team is doing a great job getting yards for its backs. Both teams have a fairly young offensive line, so these kinds of struggles should not be surprising.
Kentucky's defensive line is second in the league with 13 sacks, while South Carolina is 7th with 10. South Carolina has 20 hurries, though, compared with UK's 5. Both lines are in the lower half of the league in run defense, although both are allowing very respectable numbers at around 115 yards per game. South Carolina has played much tougher competition, though, so I think we would have to conclude that they are somewhat better against the run than the Wildcats.
Offensive skill positions
South Carolina has always had very solid skill position players, and this year is no different. Mike Davis is a solid, bruising tailback who gets most of the carries for the Gamecocks, averaging 4.5 yards in 73 carries. Brian Maddox, Bobby Wallace and Taylor Rank are all 200+ lb. running backs and solid athletes. On the outside, tight end Jared Cook leads the Gamecocks in receiving and averages almost 15 yards/catch. Moe Brown is their leading wide receiver who has just one fewer reception and almost the same yards/catch average as Cook.
Kentucky, of course, has some strong running backs of its own in Derrick Locke, Moncell Allen, Tony Dixon and Alfonso Smith. Dickie Lyons Jr. leads the way in receiving, and Maurice Grinter has been making some noise lately catching the ball from the tight end spot. Randall Cobb is also likely to return from injury at receiver, and he may be a difference maker in this game.
Chris Smelley is the man for the Gamecocks right now, and despite some inconsistent performances, he had one of his best games against Ole Miss last week. Smelley is only a sophomore, but he started several games last season and has much more experience than Mike Hartline. The big question is, can the USC line keep the strong Kentucky defensive front out of Smelley's face today?
Advantage: Slight South Carolina
Both South Carolina and Kentucky have outstanding linebackers. South Carolina is second in the league in total defense, and their linebackers are a big reason why. Wilcat fans will not forget the performance Eric Norwood put on against UK last season, and he is back better than ever, and leads the team in tackles for loss. Jasper Brinkley is a solid junior linebacker, and the Gamecocks have good depth at the position.
Kentucky, though, has dynamic linebacker Micah Johnson returning for this game. Although it is doubtful he will be at 100%, even a 90% Micah Johnson is a weapon. Braxton Kelley has also been terrific, and both Johnson and Kelley are averaging over 5 tackles per game.
Advantage: Marginal Kentucky
South Carolina has been simply terrific against the pass, leading the SEC in that category. Strong safety Emanuel Cook has been a beast, averaging eight tackles/game and leading South Carolina in the category. Captain Munnerlyn is a very capable cover corner, albeit sometimes mercurial, and Carlos Thomas and Stoney Woodson lead the Gamecocks in picks with two apiece.
Kentucky is right behind South Carolina in pass defense. Trevard Lindley is truly a lock-down cornerback, and Marcus McClinton, David Jones and the rest of the DB crew have been having a great year. Kentucky also has a +5 turnover margin to South Carolina's -5, and that could be a real factor in today's game
Kentucky is a terrific punting and kicking team, one of the very best in the SEC. Tim Masthay is a weapon, and has been greatly responsible for the 4-1 mark that UK now sports. With the exception of field goal kicking, Kentucky has an advantage over almost every team in the SEC in special teams. South Carolina is no different
After the debacle of last year in Columbia where the Wildcats fumbled away any chance of a victory, and considering the gaudy records Spurrier and the Gamecocks have against Kentucky, UK will be very, very up for this game. Kentucky fans know that this is one of the winnable games we need to have a shot at a third straight bowl, and Commonwealth Stadium will be rocking today.
Meanwhile, the Gamecocks are coming off a big road win, and for whatever reason, seem to have a lot of confidence in their ability to win this game. That could work against them this time.
Advantage: Strong Kentucky
This is a very big game for the Wildcats. Win this one, and they are one victory away from bowl eligibility and largely control their own destiny in the SEC East. Amazingly enough, not one of the traditional powers can make that claim, so this is truly a historic opportunity for Rich Brooks & Co.
But historically, especially recently, the Wildcats' futility against the Ol' Ball Coach knows no bounds, and like the long Florida and Tennessee winning streaks, it is a source of great consternation in the Big Blue Nation. South Carolina will be ready for this game, and their defense is truly powerful -- maybe even more powerful than UK's, which is something UK has not had to face a lot of this year.
Perhaps being at home and getting some of our players back off injury and the joy of Big Blue Madness will be the antedote for all this dominance by USC and the Visor. If so, Kentucky will be well on its way to a surprisingly good season, and finally begin to earn respect in the SEC.
Trends point to a defensive struggle in this game, but I am picking the Wildcats to break out. 21-10, UK.