There is a battle of unbeaten teams this weekend in the SEC and I'm not talking about the Alabama vs. Arkansas matchup.
Vanderbilt brings a 3-0 record to Columbia this weekend as they try to upset the South Carolina Gamecocks who are also 3-0 so far this season. The Commodores appear to be flying high under new head coach James Franklin while the Gamecocks have been able to ride the shoulders of Heisman candidate Marcus Lattimore. One of these teams will end up with their first loss of the season after Saturday night's contest. I know South Carolina can't afford to lose since they are gunning for an SEC East title and the SEC Championship. Vanderbilt wants to show they are for real this season and this game will be their first true test of the year. So who will be victorious?
Vanderbilt returned a lot of veteran players this year especially at some of the skill positions. Quarterback Larry Smith has really taken the reigns for the Commodores and is leading a more balanced attack this season. He's versatile with his legs as much as he is through the air. The main threat right now seems to be Zac Stacy at running back. He's rushed for 262 yards this season with a 9.0 yards per carry average. Freshman Jerron Seymour is another running back providing some quality carries for Vandy. He's picked up 145 yards so far this season with an average of 5.2 yards per carry. Seymour is also one of the leading receivers on the team. This is a team that won't kill you with their passing game but you have to be aware of it at times. The downfall for this offense seems to be two things: third down conversion and sacks allowed. Vanderbilt is only converting 24 percent of their third downs while they've been sacked 10 times for 72 yards. Both are pretty bad numbers and they haven't played the type of talent that South Carolina has on defense. They may be able to run the ball at times but don't expect a big offensive outburst from Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt's defense has been able to shut down the opposing running game by holding opponents to 85.7 yards per game. Why does this matter? Marcus Lattimore is the nation's leading rusher. Any success Vanderbilt has on defense begins and ends with stopping Lattimore. If they can do that then they have a chance to win. Vanderbilt also has 10 interceptions already on defense through three games. Trey Wilson leads the way with three of those interceptions. Linebacker Chris Marve is one of the best in the conference and leads the team with tackles with 23 total tackles. He's a guy to watch for at all times if you are South Carolina.
South Carolina hasn't performed all that great on offense in the first three games. However, one person has carried this team so far and that's Marcus Lattimore. Lattimore leads the country in rushing yards with 534 yards through three games. He's scored seven touchdowns and is right in the middle of the Heisman Trophy conversation. One player who needs to perform better is Stephen Garcia. He made a nice move last week against Navy completing 18-25 for 204 yards with completions to seven different receivers. Once he settles down and gets in the groove then this offense will take off. Playmakers like Alshon Jeffery and Ace Sanders at receiver might get some help this weekend from redshirt freshman Nick Jones. Steve Spurrier wants this to be a balanced offense but make no mistake about it, the instant this offense struggles, expect Marcus Lattimore to grind it out for South Carolina. I believe the offense will pick up this week but you have to be prepared just in case things are going your way. I know Spurrier already has that in the back of his mind.
We said the offense hasn't been great for South Carolina and neither has the defense. There has been some impressive individuals. Antonio Allen is really rolling for the Gamecocks right now. He scored defensive touchdowns in the first two games and leads the team in tackles. Melvin Ingram had the game of his life against Georgia. However it hasn't added up yet for the Gamecocks. The defensive line has had to prepare for three different offenses and it's skewed the numbers a bit. They only have two sacks right now but playing an option offense in Navy and quick strike passing attack like East Carolina doesn't allow for many chances. The run defense hasn't been all that great. The pass defense gave up big plays in the air to ECU and Georgia. The talent is there so what's the problem? Fundamentals seem to be an issue. They've struggled with tackling at times giving up several big plays after initial contact. I believe the staff is trying to simplify things to get the players in a better position to make plays. There is also a chance to see more man coverage in the secondary this weekend. The Gamecocks have the talent. It just needs to be seen on the field. This weekend is a great chance to start playing like a championship defense.
South Carolina's special teams seems to have outplayed the Commodores special teams so far this year. The Gamecocks have a punt return for a touchdown from Ace Sanders against ECU and kicker Jay Wooten has kicked two very important field goals the last few weeks to help USC win over Georgia and Navy. Vanderbilt's kicker Carey Spear has made his two field goal attempts this year but they don't seem to have the breakaway threat in the return game that South Carolina does. This could be something to watch this weekend.
Now, who wins?
You have to pick South Carolina here. Marcus Lattimore is unbelievable. The Commodores won't face a running back like him all year and won't be able to slow him down. South Carolina has a chance to make some things happen on offense this week and I fully expect a better passing attack than what we've seen the first three weeks. Defense should be able to utilize their speed to control the Vandy offense. Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney will be unleashed and could spend a lot of time in the backfield. I really expect a solid dose of Lattimore early to help build a good lead for the Gamecocks and they control the game the rest of the way. Vanderbilt has the Gamecocks attention based on USC's struggles the last few years but they won't let that affect them this week. They are focused and ready to go. Offensive lineman T.J. Johnson put it best the other day. "This is a ring game," he said. The Gamecocks are playing for the ring and won't let Vanderbilt ruin that this weekend.
USC wins 31-14.