Over the past few weeks, I've told you the story of the middle school coach who told me "the biggest problem in sports is that the other team is, sometimes, just better than you are." That's a problem that South Carolina has faced multiple times over the past few years, and almost every time that they've played a team with a top 25 ranking next to their name.
This week, the Gamecocks square off with the Auburn Tigers, a team ranked 14th in the national polls - but one with some glaring similarities to where South Carolina is coming from as of late.
Gus Malzahn finds himself without the support of a majority of Auburn Tiger fans. The offense he's been running has been largely unchanged for the past few years, despite the struggles the team has faced when lined up across from the rest of the SEC.
But the more I look at these Tigers, this year, the more I think it's not so crazy to believe that South Carolina might be able to steal a win that was undoubtedly counted by most amongst the L's this year. Let's take a look at the reasons why.
First off, this Auburn team was manhandled by the Georgia Bulldogs, and had a real opportunity to turn it around the next week against a very mediocre Arkansas team. Instead, they needed the officials to bail them out on an obvious turnover, a call that saved that from looking at 1-2. This team is, at the best, a barely-inside-the-top-25 squad. Fortunately, the 14 outside of their name makes USC look even better by comparison if they can get the W.
But, more specifically, what the Gamecocks have done in the past two weeks make them a nightmare matchup for the Tigers.
Bo Nix is a better than average quarterback who is still improving. The best way to beat him is to keep him off the field - something that South Carolina has done exceptionally well. So far this year, USC has dominated the time of possession in every game. Against Florida, The Gamecocks ran THIRTY plays more than the Gators did. They knew Kyle Pitts to Kyle Trask was a deadly combo, and the best way to neutralize them was to keep them on the bench. So South Carolina grinded out possessions - lots of runs, short passes, real blue collar style stuff. And it worked. Against Vandy, they did the same - granted, against a much more inferior squad that was burdened by a massive loss of players to Coronavirus. But the plan was the same - grind the ball down the field, wear out the clock and the defense. Converting third downs is a major part of that, another facet of the game South Carolina has handled well. Against the Gators, USC started with 6/8 3rd downs converted, and stayed on pace until late in the game. It was then the USC trailed and had to switch up their game plan a bit and force more throws in spots that would've otherwise been running downs. Add fourth down conversions into the mix, and Muschamp's boys looked even better. Every fourth quarter down against UF was completed with the exception of the final one of the game - which was just a slightly off throw that Shi Smith should've turned into a TD. Do that, and your odds of winning skyrocket.
The best way to keep Auburn limited offensively is to do it with your offense, something that USC has done well the last few weeks.
Defensively, USC hasn't been a bus parked in front of the end zone, but they have been very good on third downs - and that will be a requirement against Auburn. Bo Nix is not the best QB that USC has faced so far, so this isn't a massive step up in challenge compared to the Gators. But, he's not pedestrian either, so the pressure will be on the Gamecocks to maintain their defensive stature on money downs. Nix can be pressured into making mistakes, but that will require USC to be top notch against the run, and put the pressure on him to succeed - again, something they've done very well.
It's a very simple formular for South Carolina - control the clock, make Bo Nix win the game for Auburn, and keep running the ball. If those those three things are done, USC looks light a nightmare matchup for the Auburn Tigers - and a +3.5 spread will, I think, be covered, now that the Gamecocks' heads are clear thanks to a big victory against Vanderbilt.
I might be the only one in the Upstate to do it - but give me USC to win outright.