War Eagle, everybody! We're back again with another preview of an Auburn opponent for the 2010 footballl season. For the second week in a row, Auburn will host a team from South Carolina. On September 25th, Auburn will battle the South Carolina Gamecocks in Jordan Hare Stadium. South Carolina's last visit in 2005 didn't go so well for them, as head coach Steve Spurrier's first Carolina squad was bombed by the Tigers 48-7. Unlike the last visit, the Gamecocks should come in with a veteran squad, and will offer Auburn some serious competition.
Last season, South Carolina zoomed out to a 6-2 record, but a combination of injury and an increasingly difficult schedule led to the Gamecocks losing four of their last five games. Carolina ended the regular season with a rousing 34-17 win over arch-rival Clemson, but the Gamecocks fell flat in Birmingham in the Pizza Bowl, losing to Connecticut 20-7. This season, the Gamecock schedule gets difficult in a hurry. The Gamecocks open with three straight home games, but the first two opponents are Southern Mississippi and Georgia. The Southern Miss game is a Thursday night game, allowing the Gamecocks a long week to prepare for Georgia. After the grudge match with the Bulldogs, South Carolina hosts Furman, hoping to tune up for their first road game in Auburn.
It's been slightly over five years since Steve Spurrier was hired as the Gamecock head coach, and I think many folks were expecting instant offensive fireworks. We're still waiting. The typical South Carolina game under Spurrier is a tight, scrapping ball game. The offense seldom completely disappears, but the points don't exactly come in bushels either. Last season, much of the public blame for offensive woes was placed on the shoulders of quarterback Steven Garcia, but the truth was that Carolina had an absolutely miserable offensive line, allowing a league-worst 37 sacks. Any hopes for improvement hinge on the betterment of that unit, under new line coach/running game coordinator Shawn Elliot, who comes in from Appalachian State. If the spring game is any indication, add Steve Spurrier to the list of coaches who've added the zone-read to their arsenal. Much has been penned in the offseason questioning senior quarterback Steven Garcia's commitment to excellence, but the facts paint a somewhat different picture. Garcia enters the 2010 season as the active SEC leader in career passing yards. The Gamecock offense has a few playmakers for Garcia to get the ball to, including receivers Alshon Jeffrey, Jason Barnes, Tori Gurley, and D. L. Moore. The leading Gamecock rusher returns as well, sophomore Kenny Miles. Finally, the Gamecocks signed one of the top rushers in the nation in Marcus Lattimore.
The main reason Carolina has gone to a bowl game in 4 of Steve Spurrier's 5 seasons in Columbia has been the defense. While hardly dominant, it's usually a tenacious bunch that keeps South Carolina in the game. The South Carolina administration recognizes this, and awarded defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson a long-term contract during the offseason. The 2010 edition of the Gamecock defense features a lot of talent and experience in the back seven, but some holes have to be filled up front. The Gamecocks lost all-American linebacker Eric Norwood and defensive linemen Nathan Pepper and Clifton Gathers. South Carolina should field an adequate starting line, but depth is a question. At linebacker, things are more optimistic. A lot of young players saw action last fall, and with the infusion of two solid JUCO transfers, the two-deep is fairly set.
Like many of the seven SEC teams that finished 7-5 in the regular season a year ago, special teams were a mixed bag for the Gamecocks. Kicker/punter Spencer Lanning had a solid year both place kicking and punting, and he returns for his senior season. The Gamecocks have capable return games, but suffered on both kick and punt coverage. Consistency on kickoffs was a problem as well. Special teams coordinator Shane Beamer has worked extensively on the problems the past spring. The answer on kick coverage may be junior kick-off specialist Joey Schribner-Howard, who is said to be able to consistently reach the end zone with monster kicks. Such kickers are very rare since kick-offs were moved back to the 30 yard line a few years ago.
Unit Matchups after the jump!
Auburn defensive line vs. South Carolina offensive line: Auburn's veteran unit of Michael Goggins, Nick Fairley, Mike Blanc and Antoine Carter can give any line problems. The real question for Auburn is who is going to provide meaningful minutes behind those guys. Carolina's line was porous in 2009, but at times provided adequate run-blocking. The Gamecocks moved a lot of linemen around this spring, and they'll continue to try an develop consistency this summer and in fall camp. The top returning lineman is probably sophomore center T. J. Johnson, who was an All-SEC Freshman guard last year. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn linebackers vs. South Carolina backs: Auburn's starting trio of linebackers Craig Stevens, Josh Bynes and Jonathan Evans will be solid, and several talented incoming freshmen should provide some much-needed relief minutes. For a team that only averaged 3.6 yards per rush, Carolina has some surprisingly solid backs. Sophomore Kenny Miles led the team as a true freshman with 626 yards. Senior Brian Maddox is a bigger back with good hands and blocking skills. Marcus Lattimore enters the mix in August. The Gamecocks also have a solid fullback in senior Patrick DeMarco. Advantage: Even.
Auburn corners vs. South Carolina receivers: Auburn's top three corners are Demond Washington, Neiko Thorpe and T'Sharvan Bell. All of those guys have had some great moments on the field in 2009, and by game four of the season, should be well-seasoned. Much like Auburn, South Carolina's deepest position is wide receiver. When Garcia had time to throw last season, these guys made some noise. The top four guys are sophomores Alshon Jeffery, Tori Gurley, and D. L. Moore. Throw in junior Jason Barnes, and this is a big, strong, fast unit. All four guys are at least 6' 4" inches tall, and 200+ pounds. Jeffery is a whopping 237 pounds. He dwarfs most corners, and reminds me a lot of NFL receiver Terrell Owens. Advantage: South Carolina.
Auburn safeties vs. South Carolina secondary receivers and quarterback: By late September, Auburn should be able to field a solid corps featuring a mix of Aaron Savage, Zach Etheridge, Mike McNeil, Drew Cole and Akeem Means. South Carolina has options as far as secondary receivers. We'll likely see a big outside receiver drop into the slot frequently. The Gamecocks had success dumping the ball to both fullbacks and tailbacks on screens. A pair of big tight ends round out the equation. Senior tight ends Weslye Saunders and Patrick DiMarco combined for 46 catches, 431 yards, and 4 TDs last season. You can't leave anyone uncovered in the Spurrier offense! Senior Stephen Garcia will return as the starting quarterback, and he posted solid numbers when he wasn't being sacked a year ago. Garcia completed 55.3 percent of his passes, for 6.6 yards per pass, 17 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. That's a solid year. Should coach Steve Spurrier return to his "quick hook" ways and yank Garcia, he has some options this year. True freshman Connor Shaw enrolled in January, went through spring drills, and impressed. Shaw hit four of eight in the spring game, for 59 yards and a TD. Advantage: Even.
Punting: The Auburn heir apparent at punter is senior Ryan Shoemaker, who was a freshman All-SEC in 2007. Shoemaker has been erratic, but he does have a good leg, as evidenced by his career 41.5 yard average. Senior Spencer Lanning punts for South Carolina, and he's managed a good 42 yard average over the past two seasons. Sophomore Stephon Gilmore returns punts, and has experience after averaging 10.1 yards per return as a true freshman last year. Auburn's still unsettled as to who's going to return punts, and had problems dropping the ball on the ground. Both teams had problems covering punts. Auburn gave up 12.9 yards per return, South Carolina gave up 13.0. Advantage: South Carolina.
Kickoffs: Kickoffs were a sore subject for Auburn last year, with the Tigers only managing only a 40.5 yard net kickoff. Senior Wes Byrum will likely manage the kickoff duties in 2010. South Carolina has evidently found a weapon in junior Joey Schribner-Howard, who is said to have an extremely strong leg. Coverage was an issue with both teams. Auburn gave up 23.5 yards per return, South Carolina gave up 24.4, including three touchdowns. It's not clear who'll be returning kicks for Auburn, but Mario Fannin and Onterrio McCalebb have experience. Senior Chris Culliver is the Gamecocks' all-time leading kick returner, having returned 94 kicks for 2215 yards, both school records. That's a 23.5 yard career average. Advantage: South Carolina.
Place kicking: Auburn returns senior Wes Byrum, who's coming off a near-perfect year, hitting 14 of 15 field goals and all of his extra points. Senior Spencer Lanning hit 17 of 20 field goals in 2009, and missed one extra point. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn offensive line vs. South Carolina defensive line: Auburn has some fearsome linemen up front, and a lot of starts over the past four years. Don't expect the Gamecocks to be pushovers because of losses. Line coach Brad Lawing has been doing his job at South Carolina for fifteen years, through three head coaching changes. Only a good one would have survived that! Auburn's corps of Lee Ziemba, Byron Issom, Ryan Pugh, Mike Berry, and Brandon Moseley should be pretty tough. For the Gamecocks, senior defensive end Cliff Matthews is a good one, with size and strength. Sophomore Devin Taylor had his moments as a true freshman on the other side. Penciled in at tackle are senior Ladi Ajiboye, and junior Travian Robertson. Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn backs vs. South Carolina linebackers: Auburn should have a talented trio of runners for this game, led by senior Mario Fannin. Junior H-back Eric Smith will open holes. South Carolina uses sort of a hybrid nickel defense, with two true linebackers, and a hybrid safety position they call the "spur." Senior Rodney Paulk is the leader of this group, but he sat out spring drills due to injury. Juniors Shaq Wilson and Antonio Allen are solid. Wilson won the outstanding defensive player award this past spring. Carolina should have some capable depth at this position also. Advantage: Even.
Auburn receivers vs. South Carolina corners: The deepest position on Auburn's 2010 squad appears to be at receiver, led by star junior Darvin Adams. Sophomore Stephon Gilmore and senior Chris Culliver give the Gamecocks good height and great speed at corner. Gilmore survived being thrown out there as a true freshman last year, and the freshman All-American only looks to get better. Culliver moves over from safety, and missed spring drills due to shoulder surgery. Junior C. C. Whitlock had a decent spring holding down that spot. With the uncertainty on one side, it's Advantage: Auburn.
Auburn secondary receivers and quarterback vs. South Carolina safeties: Auburn should have a number of talented secondary receivers, including sophomore tight end Phillip Lutzenchirchen. The Tigers often line up outside receivers in the slot, and throw a lot of passes to backs out of the backfield. There are at least a half-dozen such candidates who can break a screen pass the distance. In addition, quarterback Cameron Newton has a strong arm, and is a threat as a runner. There was a lot of movement this spring at the Gamecock safety slots. Several corners were moved to safety, including junior Akeem Auguste and sophomore D. J. Swearinger. Sophomore DeVonte Holloman moves up to start at strong safety. There's some experience and talent in this group, but they'll be learning a new position. That's really not a good position to be in early in the season, facing the Gus Malzhan offense. Advantage: Auburn.
Last time Steve Spurrier came to Jordan Hare, his wide eyed new quarterback called two time outs in the first series, and ye Ol' Ball Coach was behind 17-0 before the seats got warm. Expect a better script for Stephen Garcia and company this time. I'd expect a lot of quick passes to start, mixed in with trademark Spurrier draws, and some of the new zone-read plays. South Carolina needs some early successes to take the Auburn crowd out of the game. Defensively, Ellis Johnson's group will attack the Auburn backfield and try to disrupt things at the point of attack. Few teams on Auburn's schedule will be able to deal with Auburn on the edges, so look for teams to put a premium on getting pressure up the middle.
The best hope for South Carolina is to find a way to match up in the trenches. On paper, that's not the case, and it makes for a tough night unless there's sloppy Auburn play. South Carolina matches up very well with Auburn in the skill areas, but it won't matter if they get driven off the ball on defense, and Stephen Garcia has to deal with Auburn linemen in his face all day.
Prediction: It's too early in the season for the Gamecocks. Veteran Auburn lines dominate still-developing South Carolina ones. As usual under Spurrier, the Gamecocks hang around and fight, but Auburn prevails 30-20.