After taking week five off, in week six the Gamecocks host the defending SEC and national champion and what may very well be a top-ranked Alabama Crimson Tide squad. The Tide are the consensus pick to enter the season at the top of the polls, and while it's very possible that they might slip up in an early-season slate that includes hosting the Penn St. Nittany Lions, visiting the Arkansas Razorbacks, and hosting the Florida Gators, I think they'll probably get through that gauntlet unscathed. I think that Florida has the best chance of knocking them off, but with the game in Tuscaloosa, I give the Tide an edge. That should equal a highly ranked 'Bama squad coming to town for what has the potential to be a historic night in Columbia. Carolina has never beaten a top-ranked team, and with this game in Columbia and Carolina possibly fielding one of its best teams, there will be no better chance than when Alabama comes calling.
As you might expect, Carolina has historically struggled against 'Bama, which has long been one of college football's most successful programs. We have a 3-11 record all-time against the Tide, but one of those victories (1993) came via a retroactive forfeit, while the other two both occurred while Alabama struggled with NCAA sanctions during the Holtz years. Since then, Alabama has regained the upper hand in the series, with a convincing win in Columbia in Spurrier's first year and last year's victory in a defensive struggle.
Let's take a closer look at what the Tide will bring to Columbia this year.
Offense: Talent-wise, the Tide are stacked on offense this year, with a number of high-profile players such as Greg McElroy, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson, and Julio Jones all returning. Overall, they return 9 of 11 starters from one ot the SEC's better, if somewhat inconsistent, offenses.
The trick for this offense, to me, will be whether or not it's capable of taking it to the next level if the depleted defense takes a step back. Over the past two years, Alabama has been able to rely on a ball-control offense that featured ground-churners Glen Coffee in 2008 and Ingram last year. 'Bama found a lot of success with this approach, but that was partially because its offense could rely on its defense to produce good field position and keep opposing offenses off the field and opposing defenses gassed. That may not be the case this year.
Defense: Alabama has fielded one of the country's very best defenses over the past two years. We all remember our offense's utter futility against the Tide in Tuscaloosa last year--if you need reminding, the Tide held us to a paltry 278 yards, including only 64 on the ground. Kenny Miles's 2.7 ypc average was his worst on the season.
This year, the Tide must replace a number of key defensive stars from the unit that led the way to so much success over the last two years. That could, if anything, be this team's Achilles's Heel. While defensive guru Nick Saban is more than capable of putting together a competitive defense with the array of talent he has put together in Tuscaloosa, it's still the case that having a lot of underclassman, first-year starters can spell trouble for a defense. Just look at the 2007 Gators--a talented, well-coached defense by any measure, but one that struggled quite a bit due to inexperience, only coming into its own the following season. That could be the case for the Tide this year.
Player Whose Name You Should Remember: Marcel Dareus, DE. The obvious choice would have been , but who doesn't know who he is? Dareus had a great season last year, but for most of the season played a backseat role in terms of visibility to Rolando McClain and Terrence Cody on the high-powered 'Bama defense.That changed with this gamebreaking play in the BCS National Title Game against the Texas Longhorns. This year, expect Dareus to continue making big plays in the backfield as the leader of a depleted Tide defense.
What to Expect: The first thing I would say here is that I don't think this game will be like the one last year in Tuscaloosa. This isn't only to say that I think it'll be closer, although I certainly think that. I also expect USC to have a more competent offense this year, and 'Bama should--even if it plays at a higher level than I think it probably will--have a worse defense. I don't think you'll see the profound offensive ineptitude out of the Gamecocks this time around. The problem, of course, is that the same may be true for the 'Bama offense-USC defense matchup. I don't think USC's defense will have a significant dropoff this year, but I do think 'Bama's offense should be at least somewhat better, and I also think that 'Bama was uncommonly bad offensively last year against us. That was probably McElroy's worst game. (If only the C.C. Whitlock interception hadn't been stripped on a desperation play, McElroy might--heavy emphasis on might--have cost them that game, or at least put us in a position to have something of a chance at the very end.) This is all to say that I don't expect last year's defensive struggle this time around. There will be great defense, sure--you always get that from these two teams. But it won't be such a slog.
Prediction: If it hasn't been obvious thus far, I expect 'Bama to drop off slightly this year. Although I think they'll probalby be undefeated, I I honestly wouldn't be too surprised if they've lost one game by this point in the season, probably to Florida but maybe to Arkansas. Could another upset be in store for them in Columbia? I'd like to say I believe one will. However, until we prove we can do more than scare a team of 'Bama's stature, I can't pick us to win this one. I hope this is the moment when we prove that we're for real, but since we haven't given any indication we are yet, I'm going to call this a close 'Bama victory.