Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The South Carolina Preview

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Well, the bye week is over. Again. I tell ya, it feels like we have had 3 bye weeks...cause we have. That is, if you count the Saturday after the Kansas State game...which I do. Sure, Thursday night games are fine, but it just doesn't have the allure of a Saturday matchup. What did you do with your Saturday? Me? Oh nothing much. Just won the Club Classic and Angler of the Year. 

So, Auburn is back in action against one of the most maligned teams, if not the MOST maligned team in the SEC...The Gamecocks. After a disastrous start against TAMU, they have gone on to lose some mind-boggling games. But, a lot of things came clear after Alabama TROUNCED TAMU last weekend. TAMU isn't very good, suffering its 3rd straight loss, which makes South Carolina even worse. But, we didn't have to tell you that, as they lost to a dreadful Missouri team and a much improved (by their standards) Kentucky Wildcat team. But, after back to back losses (in the first time since I can remember) they responded (?) with a 41-10 win against Furman. Congrats. 

Auburn gets back on the grid iron after one of the most head scratching losses that I can remember, going back to Arkansas circa 2006. That isn't to take anything away from State. After all, I was pretty complimentary of them in my Mississippi State Review. Of course, I should be since I picked Auburn to win in the Mississippi State Preview

Not a lot of news to report out of the Plains following the off week. Auburn's coaching staff had little to say about the loss, aside to point out just how good State really is. So, are they ready for the Cocks? 

It's amazing to think that I thought this would be the PREMIER game of the year, inside of the SEC as if featured what would probably be a game in which a rematch in Atlanta was almost certain. Instead, one team is virtually eliminated from winning their division and the other has slim to no chance. Don't like that kind of talk? Hate it. It's a fact. 

Instead, we get a lame duck game that will be virtually ignored by the media, barring an upset. That's ok. I am still going to the game and we are still going to have the best tailgate at Auburn. Don't believe me? Come by the corner. we are right by the home plate gate of Plainsman Park and Donahue. Just listen for the live band. 

Anyway, let's talk about this game.

Auburn's Offense vs Cocks Defense
The Cock defense is statistically horrible. After a solid tenure as the USC D-coordinator, Lorenzo Ward may very well find himself unemployed at season's end.  The Cocks are 2nd to last in the SEC in scoring defense, coming in at 92nd overall. Aside from a 10 point effort from Furman, The Cocks haven't stopped anyone,  giving up a blistering 31 points a game. Their 20-21 loss to Missouri was their 2nd best effort, followed by slim win against in State East Carolina who STILL put up 23 points. Additionally, SCAR has given up 111 plays of 10 yards or greater, which ranks dead last in the SEC. Their 15 rushing TDs given up is on pace to set a USC record. 

All of this plays directly into Auburn's favor. You would be hard pressed to find a intra-SEC matchup of units that is more one sided. As any Auburn fan knows, Malzahn's offensive attack is predicated on strong downhill running and picking up chunk yardage as to set the tempo. Interesting enough, SCAR has played only one premier running back, despite those horrendous numbers. Todd Gurley ran up 120 yards, even without his coach putting the ball in his hands late in the game. Missouri's Scarbrough was held to 43 yards total, but managed 3 TDs. 

That being said, Auburn's offense looked incredibly suspect. Sure, the turnovers looked bad, but what looks worse is this: For two straight games, opposing defenses have known exactly what passing lanes Marshall will use. Which makes you wonder why this didn't happen last year. Well, the answer is simple enough. Marshall made crucial passes outside of the pocket where batted balls were not a problem. I am so tempted to label this a square peg in a round hole. Why make Marshall a pocket passer when he is the games most dangerous weapon while on the outside? Additionally, I have to question the repeated passing on 1st down, especially when your QB and receivers have struggled. By the time CAP was able to wear down the State defense, the damage had been done. On top of the 1st down play calling, I was absolutely baffled by the TE pass. 

Ok. Sorry, I know this is about Auburn and South Carolina. Yes, I do have some questions on Auburn's offense. But I don't think they will be answered against a sputtering Gamecock defense. It is difficult to predict just how Gus will direct his offense this game as it appears there is much to work on. While many fans point to his press conference where he stated that Roc Thomas and Peyton Barber's role could increase, I think he means simply because there will be 4th quarter garbage time. In fact, I think this game will be a tune up game for CAP to get back to doing what he has done best: post 100 yard games. One thing I do think is possible is increased early playing time for Jeremy Johnson. Somehow I think that the game against State showed that Marshall, through no real fault of his own, cannot come from 2 or more scores and win. Throwing isn't, and probably never will be, his strength. This is a great opportunity to get SEC experience for the future of the program. I hate to say that, I really do. But the play calling and execution of the last game sank Marshall's Heisman hopes. With the receivers that Auburn has (and most likely won't have in 2015),  the time to win with the pass is now. With SCARs inability to rush the passer or defend the pass on the back end, this is a perfect opportunity to see JJ unleashed. Even if this isn't the case, I expect Auburn to roll on offense, provided that they don't allow the Cocks to follow the same recipe for success that State followed. I look for an explosive first quarter as the Tigers roll up 21 first quarter points, a FG in the 2nd,  A TD in the 3rd and a FG in the 4th. 
Big Advantage to Auburn

Auburn's Defense vs South Carolina Offense
One of the things I talked about before the MSU game was whether or not the Auburn defense was finally back to the Good Ole Days of the Tuberville era. I said that the State offense vs the Auburn defense would be the real litmus test, specifically the Frost/McKinnsey vs Prescott matchup. While State rolled up 21 first quarter points and made the Auburn defense appear bad, the fact is that the Auburn defense was dealt a 2/7 off color split when it comes to hands of poker. They could not have been put in any worse of a situation. Yet, the Auburn defense shut down state for much of the game including 3 INTs. They kept Prescott from running amuck, though I was disappointing to see the lack of execution or play calling from Ellis Johnson on the rebuttal TD for State where Prescott spread out the field and ran up the middle for a TD. I literally turned to a friend, presnap, and told him EXACTLY what was going to happen. 

So, when it comes to labeling the Auburn defense as an elite defense, I have to push, though I admit that I am still leaning that way. A great defense doesn't give excuses like 2 straight turnovers. They simply shut down offenses. But, the shock of how it happened and where certainly gives them a little credibility. 

South Carolina hasn't been TERRIBLE on offense. They are in the top quarter of teams in college football in scoring offense. They are midpack in rushing and passing. And though they have lost a lot of games (for them), the points are just coming in garbage time. They are scoring all throughout the game. And, the Cocks are well balanced, with Thompson posting 1800 yards, 15 TDs with 6 INTs. And, while not a Heisman front-runner as predicted, Mike Davis still has 660 yards and 8 TDs. The Gamecock offense isn't an offense to sleep on, especially if you can't put together a solid pass rush, which Auburn hasn't been able to do yet, at least not from the defensive line, and it doesn't appear that help will arrive anytime soon. Instead, Coach Johnson relies on blitzes from the LBs or from the corners. While Thompson isn't Connor Shaw, he can make throws if given time. And, P Cooper and N Jones are very capable receivers who can also handle sweeps in space. 

So, it seems we revisit the same thing we have visited before. Can Auburn find some sacks? I have little doubt that Auburn will shut down the Gamecock rushing attack. Additionally, the emergence of Jones on the outside has given a lot of hope that Auburn can shut down good receivers. The X-factor is the Auburn crowd, who are surely itching for revenge against an SEC foe after the meltdown in Starkville, Though the Auburn fans don't wield cowbells, they are very loud in their own right. Expect that to rattle the Cock offense early. 
Advantage Auburn

Players of the Game
Quan Bray had a ton of targets against MSU. In fact, his minutes and plays per game have consistently risen all season. With the increased focus on Duke Williams and a crippled up Sammie Coates, Bray has turned in some great games in 2014 from that outside receiver spot, though he is very much a possession receiver. Coupled with his potential to score on punt returns, I think he has to be the player to break the game. Bray has cut it loose in his final season on the Plains. He has half a season to transform himself into the type player that Chris Davis became in 2013. Davis wasn't on anyone's NFL radar until the Tennessee Game in 2013. This game has much of the same feel to it as that game did, at least to me. They are coming off an SEC West game and playing a weak SEC East 
team. Hey, I called it in the Preview of the Offense in 2014. The development of the possession receivers would make or break this offense. 

CAP was both bottled up for much of the day against MSU, just as he was against the Kansas State D. What we do know is that CAP hasn't been stopped in back to back games. He is due for a monster game and this is the perfect time to do it, against a team that is terrible against the run. I do suspect Marshall to leach off some carries, but the bruiser should have his way. 

To me, I don't see how USC can stay in this game. But, Coach Spurrier is never a coach that you should file away. While the SEC East may be out of reach, getting back on track against a Top 5 Opponent would do wonders for his program that has been carried by stars in the last few years. Even though I don't give much credit to the SCAR team, its coach is good for shaving some points off a spread that seems pretty large. But, Auburn responded well after their loss at LSU last year and held the Rebels to 22 points, 16 of those in the second half as they cruised to a win. I expect a healthy win for the Tigers.
Auburn wins 34-10