It may seem premature and overly dramatic to make this game a must-win game. If the Kentucky Wildcats want to make a bowl this season, it is exactly that. It sounds harsh, but that is what losing to Southern Miss does to you. With the loss to the Golden Eagles, Kentucky lost their margin of error for the season so yea, ... this is a must-win game.
Kentucky has won two games in a row against the Gamecocks and is favored by 2. points. This is not a team that Kentucky should take lightly as the Gamecocks, thanks to their defense, have wins over Vanderbilt and East Carolina and now have Kentucky in their sights as a must-win game for a bowl bid for them.
The Gamecocks seem to be playing hard for Will Muschamp and have taken on his fiery personality. And the defense is still good enough to win this game. The offense is another story.
While it won't be a pretty game, this should end up being a pretty evenly matched game and a good chance for Mark Stoops to put some stability into this tumultuous season,
Let's meet the Gamecocks.
It looks as if Will Muschamp is going with the potential of freshman Brandon McIlwain over the known quantity of Perry Orth as his quarterback. And last week against East Carolina, it worked for Muschamp.
In his first start, McIlwain was steady but far from spectacular. He has done a good job of protecting the ball and has the ability to make plays with his legs. So far on the season, he has completed just 52.5% of his passes for 356 yards and just a 5.8 yards per attempt average with two touchdowns. He does have another two rushing touchdowns and 80 yards on the ground. A porous Kentucky defense could be all the former four-star recruit needs to break out.
David Williams was expected to be the star in the Gamecocks backfield but has had a rough start to the season. He was benched for the second game of the season but had a solid game against East Carolina last week. Williams averaged 9.6 yards a run and had a 16-yard reception. That fire seems to have put him back atop the depth chart and out of Muschamp's doghouse ... for now.
Freshman AJ Turner had 70 yards in the season opener against Vandy but has seen his role decrease since then. For the season, he is averaging just 3.3 yards a carry, but five catches out of the backfield for 52 yards. No one else has stepped up in the backfield for the Gamecocks as McIlwain, Williams, and Turner account for 85 of the Gamecocks rushes, and they average right at three yards a carry.
6'3 Freshman Bryan Edwards has emerged to be the top receiving threat for the Gamecocks this year, Edwards has 15 catches for 207 yards, but has yet to find the end zone. 6'5 TE Hayden Hurst is second on the team in receiving with 12 catches for 128 yards. Those two have more than half of the team's receptions.
Deebo Samuel is another possibility to break out and has looked good at times with four catches for 66 yards. It is a bit troubling that the players with the most receptions after this trio is the running back Turner and another tight end in KC Crosby.
The strength of the Gamecocks is their defensive unit, but this is not as strong of a defense as we have seen in past years. Ulric Jones is 6'6 and has 13 tackles and has the ability to affect passes from the line of scrimmage by swatting them down. T Taylor Stallworth has been playing well this year and adds 12 tackles and a sack. Darius English is probably the best rusher on the defensive line, and he has 11 tackles and a sack.
TJ Holoman leads the linebacking corps with 21 tackles and an interception. He does a great job of covering the pass and can put pressure on the quarterback. DJ Smith has 19 tackles and Jonathan Walton puts consistent pressure on the quarterback. Bryson Allen-Williams is a constant force in the backfield and has three TFL on the season.
This is a front seven that has been stuffing the run this year, allowing just 12 first downs on the ground and 90.7 yards a game. Opposing offenses average just 3.1 yards a carry, but they have given up three touchdowns on the ground. It is not a front seven that will put fear in the quarterback's eyes, but they do have five sacks on the season.
Last season, the defensive backfield was a disaster and was prone to give up big plays. This year has been better as they give up just 222.7 yards a game and just 6.0 yards per catch.
JaMarcus King has made a big impact this season with 14 tackles and an interception. King is a former four-star recruit that went the JUCO route. DJ Smith is also stepping up in his role as a starter with 19 tackles. Chris Lammons is a very active defender with a sack, 3 TFL's and an interception. Rashad Fenton is one of the better pass defenders on this defense and has eight tackles on the year.
WHAT WILL HAPPEN?
Steve Spurrier left literally nothing in the cupboard when he resigned as head coach of the Gamecocks. And Will Muschamp was just 11-13 as head coach of the Gators over his last two seasons. In other words, South Carolina is a massive rebuilding project, and this is not a good football team, regardless of the 2-1 record.
There are very few playmakers on this Gamecocks squad on either side of the ball and for the first time in literally ever, Kentucky has considerably more talent and should win this game easily.
Kentucky is not a good football team right now either. The defense is a mess, and no one knows if it can be resolved this year. Only five teams have given up more yardage than the Wildcats this season, and they have played no one near the offensive firepower of Alabama and Louisville who loom ahead on the schedule. That is a story for another day.
For tomorrow, South Carolina is still a game that Kentucky should win. The Gamecocks patchwork line is still struggling to replace three two-year starters, and while the defense has been efficient so far, it can be exploited by big plays.
Call me crazy, but I am encouraged by parts of Kentucky's game against New Mexico State, and I think this defense has hit rock bottom and can only go up from here. Mark Stoops has been fiery this week in interviews, and I think this unit will respond. There is too much talent for this team to be so bad.
While I'm not overly confident, I do think this is the week that Kentucky starts to turn it around. It's not only a do or die game for the Wildcats bowl hopes, but a do or die game for Mark Stoops' future in Lexington.
I'm not of the #FireStoops movement at all, but I get the feeling that more than a few of you are. And I can see the schedule and realize that a loss here will mean a 1-4 record after next week in Alabama. While Stoops may not get fired due to the huge buyout, this could lead to the start of a fairly miserable last season and a half in Lexington.
So I am hopeful. And optimistic. In a "The Wildcats will win because I don't want to consider the alternative" prediction, let's call this one 28-24 for the Wildcats.