As America wakes up at 11:00 AM with a splitting headache and an aversion to the odor of alcohol, the Gamecocks will take the field against the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Outback Bowl. While a win won't redeem what has been a disappointing season in Columbia, it would go a long way towards sending this team into 2009 on a positive note. Gamecocks fans will pay special attention to the performance of Stephen Garcia, as Garcia needs to show us that he is capable of leading this team next year. The stakes are similar for the Hawkeyes, who could finish this year ranked and go into next season as dark horse contenders for the Big 10 championship if they can win convincingly in Tampa.
Below are my three keys to a win for the Gamecocks. Check out Leftover Hot Dog for some good previews from the crew over there.
A Tough, Smart Performance from the Defense
Shonn Greene gets most of the attention when folks talk about the Hawkeyes' offense, and USC's defensive effort will undoubtedly focus on slowing him down. However, despite their propensity to run, Iowa is not a one-dimensional team. If Greene has trouble getting good yardage early in the game, the Hawkeyes will try to get us to back off the run by putting the ball in the air. If they burn us, things will open up for Greene and all hell will break loose. Our coaches and players need to be ready for the play-action and whatever else Iowa throws at us to loosen us up. Against an efficient offense like Iowa's, mental mistakes will be costly.
Iowa's bruising, chain-moving running game is designed to wear down defenders by the second half. If Stephen Garcia and our offense can't pick up first downs each time we get the ball, we not only will not put up enough points to win. Our defense will tire as they did in the LSU game and Iowa will score a couple of TDs late. This is especially true considering that we are low on depth due to the Emanuel Cook situation and the injury to Akeem Auguste.
To do well on offense, we need a number of things to happen. Our offensive line needs to contain Iowa's defensive line, especially Mitch King. Although it seems unlikely considering how good Iowa is against the run, it would be nice to establish some kind of run game. I'd really like to see Mike Davis go out well. Although he's been disappointing this year, he's always been one of my favorite players and is undoubtedly a Gamecock through and through. Most of all, though, Garcia needs to show that he's progressed in terms of offensive knowledge since the Florida game. We need a smart, striking performance from the Tampa native, not only to win this game but also to prove that we can win big games next year.
Special Teams Play
I'm a huge believer in the importance of special teams. A good punter and coverage unit can help a team control field position. Good returns can set up easy scores. A close game is often decided by field goals.
Our special teams play has improved this year, but it left a little to be desired at points in the season. We've had success returning the ball at times, but Captain Munnerlyn's tendency to muff punts might cost us a turnover. Ryan Succop is a good kicker, but he's struggled at times. We need all of these things to come together to win what will likely be a close game.
Although we match up fairly well with them because they're weak against the short pass and we've done well defensively against teams like Georgia and LSU that run similar offenses, Iowa is a very good team, definitely as good as some of the teams that beat us this year. This is to say that I don't love our chances in this game. However, those of you that have read my previews throughout the course of the season know that I'm a huge homer and sunshine pumper when it comes to predictions. I picked against the Gamecocks once all year. That was against Florida, a game I rightly thought was utterly unwinnable. This game, while certainly tough, is not unwinnable. If everything comes together, we will win this game and notch our best victory of the season. I think we will, by a score of 24-20.