As I type this week’s column, we’ve reached our cruising altitude of 30,000 feet and the kind flight attendant offers me a beverage. “Anything with caffeine,” I say…as I see Paul Finebaum of SEC Network snicker up in first class.
Anyone who listens to our show, or has for the last month knows my roots, and knows where I went to school. You know about the BBQ bet with Kornblut and Connor Shaw and all the rest. I’ve divorced myself from almost all emotion that once tied me to the University of Missouri, but I am wistful of my first professional return to the place I called home for nine years (not all undergrad).
Keeping this in mind, I will bring you my completely unbiased and objective thoughts as they pertain to South Carolina’s first true road test at Mizzou this weekend.
South Carolina (+2.5) at Missouri
You don’t need to be a premium site subscriber to know the road has not been kind to the Gamecocks in recent memory. Take away the opening game of 2016 at Vanderbilt in Nashville, you have to go back to 2014 to find USC’s last road triumph. The overtime victory over Florida in Gainesville was one of the last vestiges of positivity derived from the Steve Spurrier era at Carolina.
Despite the history, South Carolina exorcised a lot of demons with the victory last week against NC State. Will Muschamp notices a calmer Jake Bentley, and regardless of how they looked in the second half, showed every bit of the big-play ability we expected of this team. The defense was the real eye-opener, as the unit buckled down in the red zone to limit the damage against an NC State offense that drove with relative ease between the 30s. USC won’t be able to afford that type of slippage against Missouri, and will need to bring that red zone effectiveness to the whole field.
Missouri’s defense looked atrocious in the first half last week against a lower-level FCS opponent. It looked like shades of last year when Jake Bentley had his coming-out party against the Tigers in Columbia. Deebo Samuel and Rico Dowdle also had landmark days, and a defense that didn’t have Skai Moore forced Drew Lock into a pair of picks. The South Carolina run game should be more effective this week against a Missouri interior defensive line that lacks experience. Look for the Gamecocks to run Missouri ragged, and keep them off balance with the horizontal passing game that put the Wolfpack behind the eight-ball last weekend.
The Gamecocks won’t have an easy time, however, as my concern still sits with a secondary that left a lot of yards out on the field against NC State and critical breakdowns from Jamyest Williams and Jamarcus King that kept the opposition on the field longer. USC’s defensive line will have an easier time in the trenches this week, but one of the SEC’s most dynamic backs in Damarea Crockett awaits them. Much like the game plan for the Missouri D, South Carolina should look to make Mizzou’s offense one-dimensional, forcing Drew Lock into long down-and-distance situations.
I know people will parse these next comments carefully, but I say them with great conviction: I THINK SOUTH CAROLINA IS THE BETTER TEAM IN THIS GAME, BUT I WOULDN’T BE SURPRISED IF EITHER TEAM WINS.
Loud enough for you? And yes, they crush the over in this game.
The Pick: USC 56, Missouri 52
Clemson (-6) vs. Auburn
Neither of these teams did anything last week other than make you crave to see them against some resistance. Unless, of course, you’re a masochist and love seeing your team turn a lesser opponent into mush and send them home with a hearty check for their troubles.
Clemson’s Kelly Bryant showed competence at the position, and his one throw with a moderate degree-of-difficulty was executed to perfection in his 61-yard touchdown pass to Deon Cain. He proved he can be a threat with his legs (against Kent State’s defense, at least) and temporarily put to bed any thoughts that the Tigers offense will be anything less than what they’ve been previously. My only worry is that Bryant tries to turn to the legs too soon, and doesn’t trust his arm enough. But if he can get first downs, smoke ’em if you got ’em. We also saw a running attack that could be as powerful as any in the country. I know it’s only one run against a team from the MAC, but Travis Etienne has as much speed going through the hole as any running back I’ve seen at the college level in a long time. I know he has three capable backs ahead of him, all who scored against Kent State, but I think he could be the feature back on this team before long.
I spoke to Tanner Muse after the game and asked him what a defense can gain when they see only four passes for one-yard gained. He said it helps with their reads and ability to react to the run, and while that’s a convenient answer, I contend that last weekend did absolutely nothing for the Clemson defense. I say that, knowing full well that Clemson has the best collegiate defensive coordinator on the planet (I’d argue at any level) and he will have them ready for Auburn.
Auburn showed very little of its new passing plan with Jarrett Stidham against an overmatched Georgia Southern team. What they did show is a stable of running backs that could stand alongside Clemson with its potency. With two running backs running for 130 yards, and neither of them named Kamryn Pettway, Gus Malzahn proved that Stidham won’t have to be the Air-Raid superstar he was at Baylor for Auburn to be successful. That doesn’t mean Auburn won’t have to pass, and one of the reasons Dabo Swinney cited as to how they escaped Jordan-Hare Stadium last year with a win was the uncertainty at quarterback. While Stidham is mostly a known commodity, this will be the best defense he’s seen in his college career, and more will come just like it in the vaunted SEC West.
As a contrast to the Carolina game, I expect a lower-scoring game, but I expect Clemson to be able to score and control the game. The game won’t be without some nervous moments, as Auburn will keep things close. Look also for a special teams score of some kind as both of these teams boast some of the best in that realm in college football.
The Pick: Clemson 31, Auburn 21
Now it’s your turn, leave a comment below with your prediction of this weekend’s games!