The Gamecocks dive into the meat of their SEC schedule when the Kentucky Wildcats come to Columbia. You have to think that the 'Cats really want this one, as we're currently enjoying a lengthy winning streak against them, with Coach Spurrier enjoying an even longer one. While we've undoubtedly been a bit better than Kentucky over the past decade, we haven't always been substantially better, so the losing streak miffs the 'Cats faithful to some degree.
Last year, Kentucky featured a great defense and a pitiful offense, perhaps the league's worst. This year, the defense should still be good, but it might be asking a bit much of it to play like it did last year, so the offense will need to improve. That's a big "if," though, as the 'Cats still have some significant question marks on offense. Let's take a look at how these guys stack up against us.
Last year's transition to life without Andre Woodson was largely a nightmare for the 'Cats. Offensive coordinator (and future head coach) Joker Phillips's pro-style offense thrives on a strong passing game, but last year the 'Cats sputtered to a 96-ranked passing offense. That's a big dip from the heady days when Woodson was under center. The coaching staff juggled Mike Hartline and multi-talented Randall Cobb throughout the season, with the two signal callers posting abysmal 104.7 and 95.1 QB ratings, respectively. Both, though, showed potential at times, and with more experience and a more experienced offensive line protecting them, the 'Cats could be poised to return to their old ways this year. At this point, Hartline appears to be the starter, with Cobb returning to his receiving and special teams duties. If Hartline doesn't play well, look for prize recruits Ryan Mossokowski or Morgan Newton to see the field. Cobb may also see time under center in special Wildcat packages, in much the same way that we plan to use Stephon Gilmore.
I'd say we have a slight to a strong advantage here; while Garcia hardly lit the world on fire last year, he was better than Hartline, and his ceiling is probably higher.
Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina
Senior Alfonso Smith, who has been a reliable part of the rotation throughout his career but has never had a chance to be the featured back, appears to be about to get his chance to lead the 'Cats rushing attack. The 'Cats need him to perform well, as the 'Cats need to improve on their 81-ranked rushing offense from a year ago. Smith is a speedster that can also catch passes out of the backfield, the latter a valuable skill in the Phillips offense. Derrick Locke is another option at tailback, although there are questions about Locke's health after he tore two ligaments in his knee last year against Arkansas. The coaches say Locke will be ready in the fall, but it's not easy to come back from the kind of injury that he suffered.
I would give us a slight advantage here; I like Smith quite a bit, but I think we have a bit more talent and a lot more depth. If Smith goes down, the 'Cats could really be in trouble here.
Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina
Wide Receivers / Tight Ends
After struggling at receiver last year, the 'Cats now appear to have a lot of talent here. The aforementioned Cobb will likely be the go-to guy; Cobb played only sporadically at the position last season, but he showed lots of potential. The 'Cats also bring in JUCO transfer Chris Matthews. Matthews was one of the very best JUCO receivers last year, when he caught 80 passes for over 1200 yards in nine games. (It's also worth noting that at 6'5, Matthews looks like a prototypical NFL prospect.) Buffering Cobb and Matthews will be a crew of talented players that have shown the ability to contribute.
I would call this a push. Both teams have lots of talent here but lack a proven guy that has shown he can carry the load all season. Both will need to figure who that guy will be in their early-season games.
Although they graduate former star tackle Garry Williams, Kentucky returns seven players that have starting experience on the offensive line. Rich Brooks and Joker Phillips are hoping that all that experience amounts to a better performance than they got last season. Kentucky's line is a little smallish for the SEC, but they are athletic and appear capable.
I would call this a push. I'm tempted to give us a slight advantage here as I believe we have more overall talent and depth, Kentucky returns more experienced depth, which is hugely important on the line. At any rate, both teams appear ready to get better protection this year than last.
Let's take a look at the defenses after the jump.
Kentucky had one of the conference's best defensive line a year ago. Unfortunately for them, Kentucky loses a lot here this year. The 'Cats expected to lose Myron Pryor and Ventrell Jenkins to graduation, but they also lost star end Jeremy Jarmon after Jarmon was declared ineligible after testing positive for a banned substance. Jarmon was one of the conference's best ends and losing him leaves Kentucky without the fierce pass rush they thrived off of last year. Kentucky does return talents Corey Peters and Ricky Lumpkin, but to say that they now have serious questions to answer on their defensive line would be an understatement.
Barring injury, defensive line will be a strong point for us this year. Big advantage here.
Verdict: Strong advantage South Carolina
The 'Cats return a talented all-conference candidate in senior ILB Micah Johnson. Johnson recorded 93 tackles last season despite missing a couple of games due to injury. The 'Cats hope Sam Maxwell and Danny Travathan can competently complement Johnson by shoring up the OLB positions.
Perhaps the best thing that happened to Kentucky over the offseason was CB Trevard Lindley's choice to stay in school for his senior season. Lindley is one of the best defensive players in school history and is a legit All-American candidate. Lindley is probably the best cover corner in the SEC and will effectively shut down one side of the field. We'll have to attack the other side, where things are a bit more unclear for Kentucky; they'll likely rotate Randall Burden and Paul Warford. Talented safety Winston Guy shores up a very solid Kentucky secondary.
Kentucky has a strong advantage here. I would say our safeties are comparable to slightly better than the ones the 'Cats have, but we unfortunately don't have anyone that has proven he can compare to Lindley.
Verdict: Strong advantage Kentucky
Kentucky had good return units last year, especially when Derrick Locke was returning the ball, so getting a healthy Locke back on the field could be important here, as well. Past that, the 'Cats were pretty rough around the edges on special teams last year. They gave up lots of return yards, had lots of punts and field goal tries blocked, and missed lots of field goals when they weren't blocked. Improving protection and coverage has to be on the agenda; Kentucky probably would have beaten us last year if not for an atrocious special teams performance that included giving up long kickoff and blocked-field-goal returns to Captain Munnerlyn. While Kentucky returns their most experience placekicker in Lones Seiber, they're considering handing over kicking duties to punter Ryan Tydlacka after Sieber's dissappointing 2008. Tydlacka will also take over full-time punting duties from graduated stalwart Tim Masthay.
I would give us a slight advantage here; we have questions of our own to answer at special teams after losing Ryan Succop to the draft, but Kentucky was truly atrocious here last year and really needs to improve.
Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina
While his overall record in Lexington isn't phenomenal, the job Rich Brooks has done at Kentucky has been remarkable. He inherited a program that had only seen intermittent success since the late 70s and that was at the time mired in probation. After some poor seasons early in his tenure, Brooks turned things around in 2006, leading the 'Cats to eight wins, including a bowl victory over heavily favored Clemson. He would follow with another eight wins in 2007 and seven this past year. Both included more bowl wins; the three straight is a Kentucky record. Indeed, these have been heady days for the Kentucky football faithful.
I would call this a push; both Brooks and Spurrier have proven themselves capable of doing pretty big things at schools that haven't always been very successful, but both have a little work to do to get to the next level in the competitive SEC East.
With a schedule that includes Miami (OH), Louisville, Lousiana-Monroe, Eastern Kentucky, and Mississippi State, Kentucky could very well make it back to the postseason if they can win those five and pick up an upset somewhere else, most likely against us, Auburn, Vanderbilt, or Tennessee. They could conceivably win seven or eight games if they can win multiple games against that quartet. However, on paper this looks like the weakest team in the SEC East. While the offense looks much better at receiver, quarterback is still a huge issue, and the defense will probably be significantly worse than last year's excellent unit. That could all change if Hartline or one of the freshmen step up at quarterback and they fix some of the holes on defense, but those are big "ifs" at this point. I'm predicting that our more complete lineup and home-field advantage will net us a 10-14 point victory here.
Prediction: 10-14 point Carolina victory