After traveling to Tuscaloosa for a likely loss to the Tide, South Carolina returns to Columbia to host the Vanderbilt Commodores. Vandy has administered excruciatingly painful upsets to the Gamecocks in both of the past two seasons. If anything hurts more than losing to Vandy while you're riding high with a #6 national ranking, it's losing to them again to spoil what looked like a promising early season right after you've reentered the top 25. It's hard to pick up the pieces after losing to Vandy in the second game of the year. To make matters worse, we've had every chance to win these games but have killed ourselves with turnovers and inane special teams play.
I think it's safe to say that we should now consider Vandy a rival and one of the "must-win" games of 2009, and not only because of the aforementioned embarrassment factor. With no disrespect to Bobby Johnson and Vandy, which are doing a great job considering their resources, we simply can't make it to the next level if we keep losing to these guys. The best SEC teams just don't do that.
Let's take a look at how we stack up against the 2009 'Dores.
Despite their success, Vandy had a fairly anemic offense last year. When they weren't able to create points with turnovers and special teams play, they had a lot of trouble moving the ball. They failed to exceed 14 points in all of their losses and finished the year ranked 117th in the nation in total offense, which shows you that this is a team that lived and died off of defensive opportunism. Although they should be at least a little better with nine returning starters, more of the same offensive struggles could be in store for Vandy this year.
Vandy appears to have chosen to go with Larry Smith at quarterback after Smith beat out the more experienced Mackenzi Adams this spring. Neither, though, has been particularly effective under center for Vandy, although Smith won 'Dores fans hearts by leading a late game-winning field goal drive against Boston College in the Music City Bowlr. Smith will need to improve his completion percentage and yards per attempt for Vandy to take a step forward this year. Like Adams and the now-departed Chris Nickson, Smith is fairly mobile, which will come in handy it the 'Dores end up having protection issues. Expect Adams to see the field if Smith falters.
I would call this a strong advantage for us. For all the hoopla surrounding Smith right now, he finished the year with a 100.97 QB rating. Stephen Garcia finished was at one point around 140 and still finished at 113.68 even after his horrific performances against Florida and Iowa. One thing Vandy does have is over us is the luxury of having an experienced backup in Adams, not that Adams exactly strikes fear into the hearts of anyone that has seen him play.
Verdict: Strong advantage South Carolina
Vandy will look to senior Jared Hawkins to lead their running game, which was the heart of their offense last year. Hawkins, a short, stocky back, has had a serviceable career in Nashville and will look to finish with a bang in 2009. While he won't break too many long ones, he can get tough yards and has never fumbled. Hawkins was the only Vandy back to finish with over 100 yards last year (QBs Nickson and Adams and WR Jamie Graham also did), so finding another back to help Hawkins shoulder the load will be important for the 'Dores.
I'd call this a push. We have a deeper stable of talented backs, but until we prove that we can pick up the pieces after fielding last season's joke of a running game, we can't call this an advantage considering that Vandy returns an experienced back like Hawkins.
Wide Receivers and Tight Ends
Vandy's sluggish passing offense graduated top receiver Sean Walker, who caught over 500 yards last season. Their top returning receiver is tight end Branden Barden. (You may remember Barden as the guy that made an impressive 31-yard TD grab against us to tie the game early in the second half last season.) Finding a reliable wide out to complement Barden will be a huge priority for the 'Dores this year. Luckily, they picked up transfer Terence Jeffers, who caught for over 500 yards at UConn two years ago.
This is a slight to strong advantage for us. Vandy loses its top player from a group that struggled enough to get open last year and will rely on a transfer with no SEC experience to carry the load. While we lost Kenny McKinley, on the other hand, we have several talented players that are ready to move into McKinley's spotlight.
Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina
Vandy has often struggled to field a reliable line over they years, hence Bobby Johnson's tendency to favor mobile quarterbacks. However, this year's group, which features four seniors and a junior on the first team, appears to be pretty good. If they can avoid injuries, Vandy should be solid here.
I'd call this a push. Surprisingly, Vandy's line appears to be it's greatest strength on offense due to the experience. However, this unit had some problems protecting the quarterback last year, and if they falter early this year, I'll be ready to call this an advantage for us by game day.
Let's take a look at Vandy's defense after the jump.
Vandy's defenses under Bobby Johnson have typically been decent. Last year's unit was a marvel in opportunism, always seeming to be able to come up with a turnover at the right time. It doesn't take a Head Ball Coach to figure out that Vandy's early season five-game winning streak was won on a +9 turnover differential and their late season slide came due to their return to the mean in that department. Although they lose star corner D. J. Moore, this year's group may be even better than last year's. That's good for Vandy, as the 'Dores will need this group to shoulder the load for the offense.
With three seniors and a junior in the starting lineup, Vanderbilt returns a very experienced defensive line. The star, perhaps, is Broderick Stewart, who has managed to become an adept pass rusher despite only weighing in at around 225. Tackles Greg Billinger and Adam Smotherman also look solid. This is a good group, but they'll need to toughen up against the run this year.
This is a slight advantage for us. I'd call Vandy's line average as SEC lines go, whereas I'd call ours a fair bit above average.
Verdict: Slight advantage South Carolina
Vandy linebackers are led by ILB Patrick Benoist and and WLB Chris Marve. Benoist was second-team All-SEC a year ago. SLB John Stokes rounds out the first team. This could be one of the conference's better all-around units if Stokes steps up his game. Vandy also has reasonable depth at these positions.
I would call this a push to a slight advantage for us. Vandy doesn't have anyone like Eric Norwood, but they do have a pretty well-rounded group of players.
With Gamecocks kryptonite D. J. Moore gone, Vandy will be hard-pressed to duplicate what was one of the nation's best pass defenses from a year ago. However, cornerback Myron Lewis and safety Ryan Hamilton head up a good, experienced secondary unit for Vandy. Both Lewis and Hamilton have a shot at all-conference and would be welcome additions on almost any SEC team. Casey Hayward and Sean Richardson round out Vandy's secondary.
While we probably have a bit more athleticism on the depth chart than Vandy here, we also have more youth and less proven experience. Vandy gets the advantage.
Verdict: Slight advantage Vanderbilt
Forget his horrible W-L record. Bobby Johnson is doing something very, very right. Before Johnson arrived in Nashville, Vandy not only typically posted bad records. They also usually lost by large margins to the rest of the SEC. Since Johnson took over, Vandy has turned into a dangerous team that plays even the better SEC teams very tough and usually manages an upset or two. He's now even beginning to bring somewhat respectable recruiting classes to Vandy, which is an incredible feat considering that Vandy's academic standards make it one of the toughest places in BCS football to recruit to. Make no mistake, succeeding at a school like Vanderbilt in a conference like the SEC is an incredible accomplishment, yet Johnson appears to be doing just that. Why a school with a potentially more competitive football program hasn't pulled the trigger on this guy is beyond me.
I have to give Johnson the advantage over Spurrier. Why not? He owns the Head Ball Coach.
Verdict: Slight advantage Vanderbilt
Despite all the excitement around the Vandy football program last year, in the back of 'Dores fans minds must be the fact that they won with smoke and mirrors last year. 2008 frankly wasn't even Johnson's best team in Nashville; the 2005 team with Jay Cutler and Earl Bennett actually had a prolific offense and was a few points away from a bowl berth. The difference was that that team didn't get the bounces quite as often. (Remember this game?) A reversion to the mean may be in store with this year's Vanderbilt team, which appears to seriously lack offensive firepower. When they come to play us, they'll be going up against a talent differential. Moreover, if we can't get up for this game after what's happened the last two years, then we don't deserve to play in the SEC. I think we'll win this one by a couple of touchdowns.
Prediction: South Carolina wins by 14 points
Wanna know more about Vandy in 2009? Check out these previews: