GamecockMan of Garnet and Black Attack has kindly consented to do a question swap with A Sea of Blue on the upcoming South Carolina @ Kentucky game. As you know, Kentucky is "0 for the 21st Century" against the Gamecocks, and have never beaten the Ol' Ball Coach, either when he was in Gainesville or Columbia. As you might guess, this is a source of frustration and even wonderment to many Kentucky fans.
Below, you will find the questions I asked and he responded to. You may find his responses to my questions here at Garnet and Black Attack. My questions are in bold, and his answers are in normal typeface.
1. First, the obligatory question about expectations and Steve Spurrier. Has the Gamecocks' slow start this year after the collapse toward the end of last year prompted any serious soul-searching about Spurrier's ability to get USC to the SEC championship game?
That's a difficult question to answer. On the one had, Gamecocks fans are certainly a little less sanguine about the state of our program than we were in the middle of last year, when we were fresh off a victory against a top-10 Cats team and were in the driver's seat in the SEC East. If last year proved anything (and you as a Kentucky fan may feel similarly), it's that even when we appear to have a good team, we're still competing against Florida, Tennessee, and the like, and that's always (or at least for now) going to be an uphill battle for a school like USC.
On the other hand, I don't think all hope has yet been lost. This is still a young team that is capable of more than it's produced over the past year. There's nothing stopping us from making a run for the rest of the year, especially with teams like Florida looking more beatable than they did early in the season. Winning the SEC this year would be tough; we'd have to win out and hope for some losses from Georgia and Vanderbilt. But it's possible for us, just like it's possible for the Cats, although you guys have a little bit better shot at this point because your one loss is to a Western division team.
Also, with all our youth there's good reason to think we'll have a decent team next year.
2. The quarterback "controversy" in Columbia has been lighting up the newswires. Is Smelley the man now after his strong performance at Ole Miss? Are we likely to see Spurrier pull more switcheroos, or go to a two QB system?
For now, Chris Smelley is the man, but as you know, nothing's ever certain with Spurrier. If Smelley comes out and throws two horrible interceptions in the first quarter against Kentucky, it wouldn't surprise me if Spurrier puts in Stephen Garcia. But for now, Smelley is the starter. He looked very good against Ole Miss, throwing very accurately and showing flashes of an arm we didn't know he had. [UPDATE by GamecockMan: I watched Spurrier's weekly press interview earlier, and he says he might have some special packages for Garcia this weekend.]
I don't think we'll see a dual QB system. I wouldn't be against the idea, as I think Garcia could bring some good things to the table. Spurrier, though, seems content to go with whichever QB is playing better.
That said, who knows what Spurrier is thinking? The 'Ol Ball Coach said at the beginning of the year that he would give Tommy Beecher every chance to play the entire year. Then Beecher threw four interceptions against NC State and lost the job to Smelley. At the point the contest was between Beecher and Smelley, with Garcia out of the question due to inexperience. Then Beecher dropped out of the equation and the contest was between Smelley and Garcia. After the UAB game, it looked as if Garcia had won the job, but Spurrier tabbed Smelley the starter right before the Ole Miss game, and Smelley responded with the best game of his career. As you can see, it's been a wild ride.
3. South Carolina is 6th in total defense, Kentucky is 12th. Kentucky is 82nd in total offense, USC is 72nd. These teams are mirror images of each other, both having strong defenses and rather weak offenses. Who do you think has the advantage, and why?
By the numbers you cite and based on the competition the two teams have played, Carolina has the advantage. We've played a tougher schedule and have put up better numbers.
However, what you don't mention is that Kentucky has a better turnover margin, a better scoring defense, and was scoring more points before they played Alabama last week. These stats are obviously related; Carolina gives up more points while allowing less YPG because we've turned the ball over and given our opponents easy points here and there. We would also score a lot more points if we could hold onto the ball and score in the red zone. You can't discount these issues in favor of total offense/defense stats before going into a game, as points scored is what really matters.
Even taking scoring defense and turnover margin into consideration, I still think Carolina has a slight advantage if they can continue to play like they did last week against Ole Miss. We got better protection from the line and Chris Smelley took better care of the ball, and I think that if we can continue to do those things, we will be able to win. However, Kentucky has a better defense than Ole Miss, and their pass defense is off the charts, so the Cats can create turnovers, and if they do so they'll offset any statistical advantages the Gamecocks might have.
4. What offensive player should UK fear? What defensive player? Why?
I would fear TE Jared Cook. Cook led in receiving last week with three catches for 88 yards, including a 60+ yarder. Because of his rare combination of size (he's 6'5), speed, and soft hands, he's difficult to defend.
Kenny McKinley and Jason Barnes also had good games catching the football last week. McKinley really turned it on in the second half, and he should be back to full speed by this weekend, so expect him to be a factor.
5. Neither UK nor USC has been able to run the ball effectively this year. What do you think is holding the Gamecocks' running game back? Do you think USC can beat Kentucky, the #2 passing defense in the SEC (right behind South Carolina) without an effective running game? If so, explain.
I don't think South Carolina will win without establishing the running game unless Kentucky finds itself completely unable to score and/or gives up a lot of turnovers or special teams gaffes, both of which are unlikely but possible. Our lack of production running the football earlier in the season owed mainly to poor run blocking. Our TBs are decent, but they're not the kind of great backs that can make things happen even if they don't have holes to run through.
However, we did run the ball a little better last weekend against Ole Miss. Not much better, mind you, but well enough to get the offense moving. I think a number of factors led to a better performance. First of all, Spurrier gave the Rebels' defense some new looks that he hadn't used much this year. We had been typically running single back spread formations out of the shotgun, but we ran a number of plays out of the I last week, and with the FB in there leading the way, we did a little better on the ground. We also got better blocking in general, even out of the single back sets. This was surprising, because I was led to believe by their performance against the Florida Tebows that Ole Miss's defensive line would eat us for lunch.
The improved running game no doubt led to a more effective passing game. When asked why he didn't go vertical more often after the Wofford game, Chris Smelley said that he just didn't have the chance because Wofford was sitting back in a prevent defense all night. They correctly didn't think we could run the ball, and that allowed them to take away the vertical pass. However, when Spurrier and his coaches figured out how to get a little production on the ground against Ole Miss, things opened up.
Will we be able to continue to improve against Kentucky? It's hard to say. As I said, Ole Miss has a good defensive front, so it stands to reason that our line can push the Cats back just as well as they did the Rebels. On the other hand, the Cats have a better secondary, so they can probably send more pressure and hope that their defensive backs can cover our receivers if we pick up the blitz.
Whatever happens, I think you're right to point out the running game. We will need some balance to score points against Kentucky.
Thanks again to GABA and GamecockMan for doing a question swap with us. This is one of the most requested features at A Sea of Blue, so I hope you enjoy.