Both South Carolina and Clemson will play games on the other side of the Palmetto State border this weekend, the results of which could have a dramatic impact on the direction of their seasons moving forward.
I will be in Athens this week, for the first time since I was a college junior looking at where I wanted to spend my four years of undergraduate education. There wasn’t anything about the campus I definitively didn’t like, in fact I remember telling my father he could leave me at the first college campus I explored extensively. Eventually as you all know, I went to school in another town named Columbia, but still have novel memories and thoughts about Athens. That being said, we’ll start in Raleigh.
Clemson (-8.5) at NC State, 3:30 PM (ABC)
We saw this NC State team in the opening week of the season with South Carolina, and it’s fair to say my thoughts on them have morphed since seeing their Week One loss to the Gamecocks. Their superlatives remain the same, with an experienced quarterback, offensive line and skill-position players on offense, along with one of the best front-seven units on defense. They are coming off a second-half meltdown against Notre Dame, where they gave up more than 300 yards rushing, something that should play right into Clemson’s hands.
The Tigers looked dominant against Georgia Tech despite the quagmire they had to trudge through in Death Valley, and Kelly Bryant looked like he had no ill effects from the ankle or head injuries he suffered in the Syracuse game. Neither he, nor anyone was going to have video-game numbers in the environment they played in last weekend, but they kept the Yellow Jackets at arms length long enough to get the game over before Georgia Tech tried to threaten.
This game last year was a game that Clemson should have lost, having turned the ball over four times and a Wolfpack chip-shot field goal away from not even having a national championship to defend this year. Give the Tigers credit for hitting the reset-button in overtime, but that was a game that could have derailed all of the positive things for them last year.
Marcus Edmond, the player who made so many big plays for the Tigers last year including the interception to end things against NC State, will not play this week. Mark Fields also will not play, leaving Clemson’s secondary vulnerable against a senior quarterback and an H-Back in Jaylen Samuels who will most certainly draw an assignment from Butkus Award semifinalist Dorian O’Daniel.
Given what we’ve seen from the Wolfpack in recent memory, what the Tigers do well on offense plays right into NC State’s defensive shortcomings. Look for the Tigers to run the football effectively with Travis Etienne and Tavien Feaster mixed in with play action over the top from Deon Cain and Milan Richard, who isn’t quite Jordan Leggett, yet, but is morphing into a powerful role with Clemson. In Week One we saw NC State have a poor day in Special Teams, and Saturday could be the day that Ray-Ray McCloud breaks through with a big day in the return game. Don’t count out Hunter Renfrow either as the key 3rd Down “break glass in case of emergency” receiver he continues to be for Bryant.
NC State proved to me they are not ready for the big stage against Notre Dame last week, and Clemson has the mental wherewithal to push past the Wolfpack and effectively end the ACC Atlantic race.
Pick: Clemson 31, NC State 17
South Carolina (+23.5) at Georgia, 3:30 (CBS)
South Carolina’s offense is peaking at the right time, but their defense took a step back last week against Vanderbilt. All of this might not matter, as the Gamecocks face the undisputed toughest opponent on their schedule this week.
Head Coach Will Muschamp and his players have brought forth a business-like approach this week and should present a game plan that tries to shorten Georgia’s offensive possessions to keep the game close. Make no mistake, however, the line in this game outlines how far away those in the college football world feel South Carolina is from being amongst the sport’s elite.
Georgia boasts a rushing attack with two seniors in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, who came back to Athens to try and capture the level of play they’re currently at. The reason this group is #1 in the country is not just because of who they’ve beaten, but with the fifth-highest average scoring margin in the nation, beating their opponents by an average of 26 points.
They’ve been able to withstand the loss of Jacob Eason, and despite having only 79 completions through eight games, Jake Fromm has the fifth best passing efficiency rating in the country at 171.9. That mark is a far cry from South Carolina DB Chris Lammons’ claim, “They can’t pass.”
The Bulldogs have done the deed on defense as well, allowing just 11.9 points per game, which is third-best in the country. Georgia also has the #3 pass defense in the country (157.4 yards allowed on average) and the #6 rush defense (94.8 yards allowed on average).
Jake Bentley had his best QBR game of the year against Vanderbilt, and South Carolina had its largest yardage output in rushing yards and total offense last weekend. They will need to play their best game of the season, with perhaps an unforeseen wrinkle in order to catch Georgia off guard. Hayden Hurst had a team-high seven targets in the win over the Commodores, and he needs to be an option to take pressure off of the outside receivers.
If there’s a spot where South Carolina can take advantage of Georgia on defense, it’s the right side of the offensive line, where the Bulldogs start a redshirt freshman at right guard and a true freshman at right tackle. Georgia might put a variety of window-dressing on its play designs, but make no mistake, what they want to do is simple, run the football on their way to victory.
It’s hard to design an avenue for South Carolina to win this game, but to say it plainly, a lot of crazy stuff has to happen. A loss in this game would not be shameful, especially if the Gamecocks can keep it in range in the second half. If they are close, Georgia could buckle, it’s just illogical to pick that at the outset.
I have the Gamecocks keeping it closer than Vegas thinks, but ultimately falling in the end.
Pick: Georgia 38, South Carolina 17
Now it’s your turn, feel free to post your thoughts on my picks, and your own predictions in the comments below.
EDIT: Will also take any and all suggestions on how to get to Athens without hitting massive traffic. –WP