Given the momentous stakes on Saturday’s game I exchanged emails with two - count ‘em, two! - South Carolina writers this week. They are Brandon Larrabee and James Shahid.
Brandon is a sports blogging OG who has been in the game for a decade. He started the South Carolina blog Cock ‘n’ Fire which later became the SB Nation team site Garnet and Black Attack. Not satisfied with having built a single empire, Brandon then left to run the SEC site Team Speed Kills. He recently stepped down from management there, but is still cranking out content this fall. If you use Twitter he can be followed @BecomingBrandon.
James is a current writer for @GABAttack is one of the sites more prolific writers doing everything from Q&A’s, press conferences, and previewing the season.
I’d like to thank them both for their time. I answered James’ questions here.
1. Three games into the Will Muschamp era the Gamecocks sport a record of 2-1. Three games is a small sample size, but what are your early impressions of Muschamp?
(JS) With as bare as the cupboard looked heading into this season, it does looks like Muschamp is maximizing the talent he inherited. He hasn't been afraid to throw true freshman and first year guys into big roles, which I admire, and so far they've responded positively. While's there's still a long road ahead to get back to those 11-2 seasons, all signs lead you to think Muschamp is capable of getting the Gamecocks back there.
That said, you are absolutely right to say three games is a very small sample size, and as good as those two victories felt to the fanbase, the loss to Mississippi St. looked like the the South Carolina of 2014 and 2015. I'm excited to see him going with McIlwain at QB for the foreseeable future and how this team responds and grows around the young leader.
(BL) I'm ever-so-slightly impressed, but that might be because I came in with incredibly low expectations. My prediction at this point probably would have been 1-2, with the best-case scenario being some sort of 5-7 finish and 4-8 being a lot more likely than 6-6. I'm headed toward that being the baseline. That said, this team has MacGyvered both of its wins to some extent. ECU gained 207 more yards and 21 more first downs (34-13) than South Carolina, but had the charity to keep turning the ball over on scoring opportunities. The Vanderbilt game was a dreadful insult to the game of football that no one should really ever talk about, but the Gamecocks only won it by scoring 13 points in the last 22 minutes. I'm okay with a team "learning how to win," or whatever sportscasters want to call it, but they can't keep winning like that. It's just not sustainable.
2. Muschamp's teams at Florida had good defenses, and so far this season those numbers look better than last season. South Carolina gave up 400 passing yards to ECU, but controlled Mississippi State and Vanderbilt's aerial attacks. The front seven is allowing 4.8 yards/carry this season which is slightly better than last season. Do you expect this defense to get better as the season progresses?
(JS) Yes. The secondary is for the most part inexperienced and was scattered with question marks, but through the addition of juco transfer Jamarcus King, has played pretty decent thus far. The linebackers are hopefully, only going to get healthier once Larenz Bryant returns. And, the defensive front is finally starting to show a little stiffness to it.
The biggest difference I've seen from the defense this season is their grit, while yes the gave up a bunch of yards against ECU, they never gave in on any of those drives that entered the red zone. They kept fighting and it paid off for them time after time last Saturday. Expect this defense to keep giving up yards, but to try to prevent the big play and force offenses to finish them off on the goal line.
(BL) Probably not statistically. Texas A&M, Tennessee and Clemson are all left on the schedule, all three always have the opportunity to be good to elite on offense and none of three is going to be Vanderbilt. So the numbers might not look that better at the end of the year. But I don't think there's any real question that the defense looks to be better so far, at least in some aspects of the game. The one weakness that still seems to dog this team, at least at times, is an inability to tackle soundly. If Muschamp can fix that, either in-season this year or in the offseason, I'd feel a lot better about where the defense is headed.
3. Brandon McIlwain is a true freshman who is now the Gamecocks starting quarterback. For Kentucky fans who are unaware, describe some of his strengths and weaknesses.
(JS) His dual-threat athleticism is what has separated himself from game manager Perry Orth. The playmakers are few and far between on South Carolina's offense and McIlwain provides that much-needed extra threat offensively to engineer a offense at the very least capable of moving the ball consistently.
While his passing game is going to continue to improve throughout the season, it still has a ways to go. That said, he needs to be careful in relying on his legs too much, especially when he faces the pressure of away SEC crowds.
(BL) He's still really young and really raw, and that's probably his biggest weakness. His completion rate is still hovering around 50 percent, though it looks like the coaching staff is starting to find ways to adjust the play-calling to help him in that department. But he can run the ball some --- 3.0 ypc this year, and that's including sacks --- and I think his skill set is a little bit closer to what Kurt Roper wants the offense to be. (How much freedom he has and how willing Muschamp will allow Roper to go in implementing a system is still, to my mind, an open question.) The team just also seems at time to move the ball more consistently when McIlwain's in than when Perry Orth is, though the scoring drives in the Vanderbilt game might dispute that. Honestly, I think McIlwain's biggest asset is that he has talent and the time to develop it, which admittedly doesn't matter a lot this week.
4. UK's defense is pretty horrid again this season. Which players on South Carolina's offense will give the Wildcat's defense the most trouble Saturday night?
(JS) Look for a rested Deebo Samuel to make an attempt at a break-out performance after missing last week, along with his true freshman sidekick Bryan Edwards. As for the running game, A.J. Turner and David Williams have showed flashes been the consistency hasn't really been their for either back. If the Gamecocks find some success in the running game Saturday, look for a steady dose from each of them to both build their confidence.
(BL) Can I say Elliott Fry? Because I really feel like Elliott Fry is the most consistent scoring threat South Carolina has. (It's not for nothing that we call him #FREISMAN.) Okay, seriously: His numbers aren't the most eye-popping this year, but Deebo Samuel is a receiver to watch, especially if he can in fact play. (Key caveat, that.) It's kind of hard to answer this question, because a lot of the key contributors this year are pretty young, and it feels like one of them could kind of take over and establish himself as the key guy at any time. Bryan Edwards is another name to keep in mind.
5. On the flip side, UK's offense is ranked 58th in the latest S&P+ rankings. Which of South Carolina's defenders do you think will give UK the most trouble on Saturday?
(JS) Jamarcus King and Chris Lammons both looked really good last Saturday in the secondary, so look for those guys to try to shut down the Wildcats receivers. As for upfront, T.J. Holloman has shown a lot of versatility at linebacker and Antoine Wilder made some big plays against ECU as well.
Honestly though, I'm just hoping we can quiet JoJo Kemp in our third attempt. We're so far 0-2.
(BL) Chris Lammons had a great game against ECU --- even got a championship belt for it --- and Bryson Allen-Williams can be disruptive. This defense was really, really hurt when Skai Moore went down for the year. With the possible exception of Lammons, and just because he had one exceptional game, nobody really jumps out to me as being "the guy" on defense right now.
6. What's your prediction for the outcome of the game, and what will be one or two decisive factors?
(JS) Slowing down the Wildcats offense with a similar bend, but don't break strategy implemented against ECU. If we can hold Kentucky to 21 points or under, I think the offense will have just enough in there to get past this less than stellar Wildcats defense.
After the past two seasons, I've started to feel cursed against Mark Stoop's ‘Cats. Hopefully a new coaching regime can change that. South Carolina 24 - Kentucky 21.
(BL) This feels like a game that's almost bound to get weird. When South Carolina is on the field, it's weakness vs. weakness. When Kentucky is on the field, it's relative strength against relative strength. This might be a backwards way of looking at it, but I think the outcome probably depends on which kind of game it is. If it becomes an offensive shootout, I really don't like South Carolina's chances of keeping up without shooting itself in the foot. If the Gamecocks can keep it low-scoring, though, they might just be able to eke out enough points to win the game. There's also the fact that Kentucky is at home, and I hate hate hate it when South Carolina has to play in Lexington. And let's be blunt: Neither of these teams is very good at the footballs right now. I keep going back and forth, so I'll be a pessimist: 34-23 Kentucky.