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Kentucky Football: Can Wildcats beat the Gamecocks on the road?

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This may be a season-defining game for both Kentucky and South Carolina in 2015, and maybe even beyond that.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Kentucky’s second game of the season just happens to be an SEC road game against the Gamecocks. Lindy’s has South Carolina as the 12th best team in the SEC while Kentucky is ranked 13th. If Kentucky can pull this one out, it could be a season changer.

Some, including me, believe the USC and/or the Florida game will be the pivotal game(s) of the season. I see winning one could very well mean a six-win season. Winning both, I think, puts us at seven wins.

The Gamecocks play North Carolina on September 3rd in Charlotte, and then host the Cats on the 12th. Since the 3rd is a Thursday, they'll have plenty of time to prepare for Kentucky. Give Steve Spurrier enough time, and he'll have his team ready. The issue for him, however, is depth on defense at the DL position if you look at the numbers.

Unhappy with last year's defense, Spurrier brought in Jon Hoke to help Lorenzo Ward with the defense. Last year, the defense didn't measure up to a normal SC defense. Some blamed Ward, but it had to be due to attrition.

Spurrier did, however, sign former five-star DE Marquavius Lewis from Hutchinson C.C. Carolina believes he can be another Jadeveon Clowney level player. Here's what  SNB's Garnett and Black Attack has to say about Lewis. While he sat out the 2014 season, he's eligible for the 2015 season. As good as he may be, you have to wonder if one player can improve a team's defense enough to compete in the SEC.

The Gamecocks have suffered attrition the last couple of seasons.  They have no quarterback who has lettered, so the position will be a battle between redshirt four-star sophomore Connor Mitch, redshirt three-star freshman Michael Scarnecchia and four-star true freshman Lorenzo Nunez.

Spurrier also gave walk-on redshirt junior Perry Orth a shot in their spring game. Orth and Scarnecchia  appear to be where the QB battle will revolve around in the fall for #2 at the position.

You can read about this and other storylines from the spring game here.

The Gamecocks are also thin at wide receiver with only three having game experience. It appears that redshirt freshmen Tyshun "Deebo" Samuel and Terry Googer will see game action. Jerrell Adams (red-shirt senior) is the only TE with game experience.

On the defensive line, they only have four players, but all have lettered from game action. Two earned one letter and two have earned two letters. While there isn't any margin for injury, there are two with 4* talent, and all weigh over 300 lbs.

The Gamecocks offensive line is their strength. They will have three red-shirt seniors, three red-shirt juniors, and two redshirt sophs who all have enough game experience to have lettered. They have two redshirt freshmen and another four true freshmen coming in the fall. Combined, the offensive line averages 3.29 stars (Rivals) compared to Kentucky's 2.59 stars OL. While SC holds an edge in talent, Kentucky holds a very slight edge in depth.

After looking at both teams' Spring rosters, Here's what I've found:

Overall Experience:

If experience overcomes talent, Kentucky has the advantage against the Fighting Spurriers. Phil Steele has published several factors for his preseason and looks at the 128 bowl championship teams. Kentucky returns 47 lettermen which places them 82nd in the 128. That ranks them 10th in the SEC. The percent of returning lettermen is 67.1% compared the South Carolina's 62.3%. South Carolina has 43 returning lettermen. They rank 115th and 12th in the SEC.

Offensive Line

The Gamecocks have eight players who have played enough to earn a letter while Kentucky has seven. Both teams have two players with three letters. South Carolina's talent averages 3.29 stars (Rivals) while the Kentucky OL averages 2.59 stars. Kentucky's Cole Mosier is the only walk-on who has earned a letter. Kentucky has red-shirt junior  John Toth, a Remington Award candidate, at center and senior tackle Jordan (false start) Swindle anchoring the line. Hopefully, Swindle can remember the count.

Phil Steele says Kentucky's level of experience on the O-line ranks 15th nationally and 3rd in the SEC behind Mississippi and Missouri. South Carolina's level of experience ranks 49th nationally and 7th in the SEC.  Kentucky has 95 career starts returning while the Gamecocks have 74 career starts returning, according to Steele. Can the Cats' O-line fend off our SEC opponents? You have to decide if experience overcomes talent. KSR's Freddie Maggard gives some insight on the offensive line by position in this article: The Offensive Line: My Favorite People.

Quarterback

On paper, Kentucky has the advantage in experience. Patrick Towles has two letters under his belt and Reece Phillips earned a letter last year. Drew Barker shreds his red-shirt and is the apparent backup to Towles.  South Carolina's signal-callers have little or no game experience, but you know Steve Spurrier will not hesitate to use all three available to him.

Connor Mitch is the old man of the bunch as a redshirt sophomore and redshirt freshman Michael Scarnechhia will be available. Incoming freshman Lorenzo Nunez could see playing time. Don't forget Orth.The QBs for both teams average 3.67 stars.  South Carolina's loss of Dylan Thompson to graduation could be a determining factor. The Old Ball Coach has decided that he will serve as the OC this year.

Expect the genius of Steve Spurrier to shine as usual, but will it be enough?

Here's another piece by former UK quarterback, Freddie Maggard. He believes a quarterback must have the following traits: Confidence, Courage, and Competitiveness. The game against the Gamecocks could be crucial for "Patty Ice" to keep his job as the starter.

Running Back

Here again, South Carolina has more experience in three-time letter winner Brandon Wilds, but red-shirt sophomore David Williams may be the most talented. Kentucky will counter with Stanley "Boom" Williams,JoJo Kemp and Mikel Horton. The Gamecocks will have the depth advantage, but Kentucky has an edge in overall talent, in my opinion. Don't forget, we can use 333 lb DT Jacob Hyde at the fullback position.

Wide Receiver

Kentucky has eight players who have earned at least one letter plus Garrett Johnson who failed to earn a letter due to injury. Johnson showed a lot of talent before his injury. Thaddeus Snodgrass loses his redshirt and should be a contributor.  South Carolina will feature three who have earned at least one letter. Their primary target should be junior Pharoh Cooper. Carolina has two talented players who will give up their red-shirts in Terry Googer and Tyshun Samuel.

Tight End

This isn't a position of strength for either team, but Carolina has one, Jerell Adams, with three letters. Kentucky's Darryl Long and C. J. Conrad will have to make an impact at the position for Kentucky.

Kentucky, overall, seems to have the better offense with 78.22% of yardage returning, according to Phil Steele. That ranks 43rd nationally and 4th in the SEC in Steele's rankings. South Carolina's offense has 31.41% of yards returning which puts them at 120th nationally and 12th in the SEC.

Overall Defense:

Kentucky returns 69.08% of tackles made from last year. That puts the Cats at # 40 nationally and 3rd in the SEC. The Gamecocks rank 2nd in the SEC and 21st nationally with 75.20% of tackles made returning on defense in Phil Steele's rankings.

Defensive Backs

Both teams have strong numbers with experience: South Carolina has nine and Kentucky has ten.  With Mark Stoops assisting, the Kentucky DBs have shown improvement each year.

Defensive Line

If you'll recall last year's game, Kentucky wore down the Gamecock defense in the second half as JoJo Kemp ran through and around their defense via the Wildcat. Kentucky scored 21 points in the 4th quarter to pull out the win. South Carolina will be woefully thin along the DL this year with only four players. Injury could kill the Gamecock defense. Those four, however, are experienced. The bad news for Kentucky is that they only have four with enough experience to have earned a letter. The Cats do have eight players likely to play this year, giving them the advantage in depth. Kentucky's disadvantage is youth.

Defensive End

Expect South Carolina to be led by former 5* JUCO Marquavius Lewis. This will be a position of strength for USC even though they only have five at the position. Kentucky only has four, excluding the two freshmen arriving in the fall. Denzil Ware drops his red-shirt to join Farrington Huguenin, Jason Hatcher and Jabari Johnson.

Linebacker

What South Carolina lacks in experience, they make up for it with talent. Four 4* players have earned at least one letter. Their best is arguably sophomore Bryson Allen-Williams who may wind up as a defensive end. The linebackers are led by Junior Skai Moore who led the team in tackles the last two seasons. Kentucky counters with seniors Ryan Flannigan, Khalid Henderson and Josh Forrest.

While my evaluation of the two teams is an amatuer's vision, you can get a better feel for South Carolina from this David Cloninger write-up at The State in Columbia. If Kentucky can take this trip with confidence and walk away with a win, it could prove to be more important than a victory over Florida at home.

Just for the record here's how Kentucky stands, according to Steele, against our bowl competition teams:

Phil_Stelle.0.pptx

Steele Stats

Judging from Steele's numbers, you can see this is a winnable game, but can, or will our Cats "git-r-done?"