GAMECOCKS 2007: vs. VANDERBILT
This could be the year for Vanderbilt. And when you talk about "the year" for Vandy, you don't mean a national championship or conference crown; you mean they could actually make it to a bowl game.
Can somebody please get this man six wins?
But oh, the schedule, which C&F will discuss more in a minute. It's Vanderbilt's curse that when they don't have the talent, they have the schedule. When they have the talent, the schedule gets tougher. And when they have the talent and the schedule, they lose to Middle Tennessee State University and end up going 5-7.
O-line. All but one of last year's starters return for Commodores. The line was solid, if it didn't necessarily excel, surrendering 19 sacks, including two for the Gamecocks. And with a quarterback like Chris Nickson, who led the team with 694 rushing yards, they don't have to be great, they simply have to give him a little time. ADVANTAGE: VANDERBILT
Quarterback. Chris Nickson is the kind of guy who would get some attention -- not a ton, but some -- if he were at a school that had a chance of playing its final game after Christmas. He's a mobile if not exceedingly accurate QB, completing 54.8 percent of his passes (160-292), though his TD-to-INT ratio was a less-than-desirable 15-to-13. But he averaged 57.8 yards a game last year on the ground and had nine rushing TDs. (Which, to C&F, is a 24-to-13 ratio, but nobody seems to agree with him on that.) The Gamecocks shut him down last year; he went 4-for-15 with two picks and no TDs. Look for improvement in his second year running Bobby Johnson's system. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA
Wide receivers. The guy who really is being overlooked by the casual football fan is Earl Bennett, who caught 82 passes for 1,146 yards and 6 TDs. But he was also shut down by South Carolina last year, catching only four passes for 16 yards. Whether they can do that again is an open question. George Smith returns, and Sean Walker is penciled in at the other WR spot. Smith had 21 catches for 313 yards and 3 TDs last year; Walker grabbed 16 balls for 204 yards and a pair of scores. ADVANTAGE: PUSH
I had 1,146 receiving yards last year. Who am I?
Running backs. Besides having one of the longest names in the SEC for a player not found on Ole Miss' roster, Cassen Jackson-Garrison had trouble keeping up with Nickson, rushing 152 times for 614 yards and 5 TDs. While having Nickson helps, Jackson-Garrison will have to do better for Vandy to have a good year. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA
Defensive line. Two starters return in Curtis Gatewood and Theo Horrocks, who last season accounted for 14 TFL and 12 sacks. Steven Stone, expected to start at end, had 6.5 TFL and half a sack. Would-be starting tackle Gabe Hall had 9 tackles in 2006, one for loss. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA
Linebackers. Starters Marcus Buggs and Jonathan Goff return to the cops. Goff led the team last year with 93 tackles with 6 of those for loss, including 2.5 sacks. Boggs had 10.5 TFL and 2 scaks. Brandon Bryant, expected to start on the weak side, contributed 2 TFL in time as a backup. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA
Secondary. The Commodores are stacked at safety, where two returners are located and returning starting CB Joel Caldwell has been shifted. Ryan Hamilton and Reshard Langford combined for four picks last year. Myron Lewis and D.J. Moore are expected to start at CB, with Moore having a pick and getting some starting time in 2006. Lewis was limited. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA
Bobby Johnson has done about as well as could be expected. He doesn't have as much to work with as any other coach in the conference. And he does well every year. But without even a bowl berth to his name, it's hard to define how good he is. So far, he's 0-2 against Spurrier. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA
Despite all the statements of "ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA" you see up there, don't be fooled. Vanderbilt is a decent team that just has the misfortune of being in the SEC East. And the Commodores are always in the game. Last year, Vandy's opponents scored 23.7 points a game. The 'Dores scored 22.0. Among the teams that they lost to by a TD or less: Alabama, Arkansas, Ole Miss and eventual NC Florida. Vanderbilt also beat Georgia. If the Commodores manage to start winning some of these games, they could be dangerous. LIKELY WIN
WHERE SOUTH CAROLINA WOULD BE
If all of C&F's projections are correct up to this point, the Gamecocks are at least bowl-eligible at 6-2, and could be in a strong position for the division race with a 7-1 record. But they have yet to endure the Orange Crush, which comes next. After Vanderbilt, South Carolina travels to Tennessee and Arkansas before coming home to close out the season against Florida and Clemson.
THE REST OF THEIR SEASON
Again, the schedule is all that stands between this team and a December game. There are likely wins against Richmond, Ole Miss, Eastern Michigan and Miami (OH). Games against Alabama and Georgia and at Auburn, Florida and Tennessee are probable losses in addition to South Carolina. That would leave Vanderbilt needing to upset one of those teams to avoid having to defeat both Kentucky and Wake Forest to get bowl eligible. Worst-case scenario is likely 4-8, though C&F would put his money on 5-7 and give Vandy the slimmest chance of a 6-6 record and trip the promised land of the postseason.