While the Gamecocks have started the season 4-1 and are on a three-game winning streak, they've suffered an odd problem this season in that none of their victories have really given fans satisfaction. Against Vanderbilt, UCF, and Kentucky, the Gamecocks have given up consecutive touchdowns to the opposition to take games that appeared to be out of reach and put them back on the precipice. While South Carolina has held on for victories in each of these three games - and none of those three teams are terrible - the fact that it keeps happening has led many to speculate that the upcoming three-game road trip may bring about a time where the defense finally fails totally.
Against that backdrop, the Arkansas Razorbacks welcome the Gamecocks to Fayetteville for a game that (like all of them are at this point) is vital if USC harbors any illusions about making a race of it in the SEC East. While on first glance the Razorbacks appear to give the Gamecocks cause for pause in a number of areas, a deeper look shows that Carolina matches up relatively well for its last match-up against Arkansas as SEC "rivals."
Arkansas Hasn't Answered the Bell Against Quality Opponents
The Razorbacks have put up solid numbers on the whole this season offensively. Obviously, given some of the issues we've had on defense, they'll be thinking that they can move the ball effectively against us with the hope of matching our newly-prolific offense.
The splits aren't so kind to Arkansas. They've averaged over five yards a carry, but that's bolstered by a 5.5 yard/attempt average against UL-Lafyaette, Samford, and Southern Miss. Against their three more credible opponents (@ Rutgers, Texas A&M, and @ Florida), the Razorbacks have averaged a less healthy, if still decent, 4.4 yards/attempt.
The area they've really bottomed out is the passing game. In their first three outings, Arkansas hit 58% of their passes for an average of 8.8 yards/attempt, which is a damn fine combination of success in the passing game and moving the ball. That success fell off quickly once the competition stepped up - in their last three games, the Hogs have only completed 47% of their passes, and their yards/attempt has fallen precipitously to 5.87. No matter their woes, the Gamecock defense is far more like the three most recent Hog opponents, not Southern Miss.
While Arkansas does a decent job of running the ball, they're simply not great in any particular aspect of their offense. South Carolina's biggest weakness this season has been wasting advantages on defense - too many 2nd- or 3rd-and-long situations have become first downs and long gains. Given that Arkansas doesn't have the type of big-play quarterbacks and receivers that should be making Carolina pay, if the Gamecocks can shore up that aspect of their defense, they should be able to take an important step up. Of course, we've said that now for the better part of a month.
The Arkansas offense could well help the Gamecocks get their swagger back (though of course, the relatively weak Kentucky offense wasn't a bad chance to do that either, and Carolina didn't exactly seize that opportunity).
Carolina Can Improve Just by Getting to Average on Special Teams
The fact that Carolina has kicked the ball well this season means that its problems on special teams seem more correctable, in that it's hard to find a great kicker on your roster if you don't have one to start the season, but the Gamecocks seem to have enough talented players at skill positions that one of them can step in and fill the return role better than Bruce Ellington, Shon Carson, and Victor Hampton have done thus far.
This week, Pharoh Cooper has auditioned for a chance to return kicks and punts. While there's of course some risk to putting a true freshman out there for his audition in an SEC road game, the inability of the Gamecocks' current return squadron to break plays - or at least, hold onto the football - means it may be worth it. On average, South Carolina is bleeding over four points a game to its opponents in special teams. Those four points will be the difference between winning and losing at some point this season if the problem isn't corrected soon, and this week is as good as any to get right.
The Gamecock Offense Should Move the Ball
South Carolina continues to both stay on schedule and create explosive plays, ranking 12th in success rate and 14th in points per play according to Bill Connelly's S&P numbers. Honestly, there's no particular match-up advantage here except for the fact that we have a good offense and Arkansas has an average (at best) defense. The Gamecocks are good across the board - they can run and throw, and they can do either from both standard and passing downs. Meanwhile, Arkansas is consistently mediocre no matter how they're attacked or the situation.
It's been picking up more steam in the media in recent weeks, but as his career winds down, Connor Shaw deserves more and more credit for how well he's played. One big area he's improved this season (thanks in part to improved offensive line play) is avoiding sacks. Throughout his career, Shaw's been sacked on over 10% of his dropbacks. This season, he's down to under 5%, which leads to fewer long-to-go situations. Arkansas has recorded almost three sacks a game (which includes 8 in its three games against competent opponents, five of which came against Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M). If Shaw and the Gamecock offensive line can keep the Arkansas defense from effectively pressuring him in the passing game, South Carolina should be able to move the ball effectively across Fayetteville come Saturday afternoon.