The opening 7.5 point line in favor of USC for the Gamecocks' road trip to Central Florida illustrates that this game should provide a solid challenge for the Gamecocks. It's a game that we should win, but it's not going to be a pushover, and we could very well lose if we don't come ready to play. Indeed, given that we're coming off a bye week in which we've hopefully begun to address some of the problems we experienced in the first three weeks, this game may end up being a nice barometer of what this USC team is capable of achieving this year. Here's what I'm watching for this weekend:
--Penn St., which managed 350 yards against lowly Syracuse, gained 450 against UCF for a solid 31 points. I'm not inclined to feel too worried about UCF's defense, even on the road. While the Knights have talent at spots, they're starting some undersized players at defensive end and outside linebacker, and most of the backups on the defensive line are undersized. Particularly as we should be healthier after the off-week, I like our offensive line to dominate UCF up front, opening running lanes for our two-headed tailback duo and giving Connor Shaw time to push the ball upfield. The key thing to watch will be Shaw. Connor has played the best football of his career through the first three games. He's making good decisions, getting the ball out more effectively than he has in past year, and making big plays with his feet. The guy currently has a 6-0 TD/INT ratio. Still, that old perception of Shaw as struggling on the road is in the back of my mind. Shaw dispelled that perception with a gutsy performance at UGA in a loss, but he did have a costly fumble that somewhat marred an otherwise impressive performance. I'd really like to see Shaw come out and really eviscerate what should be a vulnerable UCF defense. This is a great chance for him to continue to build all-important confidence before we enter the teeth of the SEC schedule.
--On the other hand, UCF has a totally legit offense led by QB Blake Bortles, tailback Storm Johnson, and an offensive line that dominated what was thought to be a decent (although shallow) Penn St. front seven. This isn't UGA we're talking about, but UCF's offense should be just as good as if not better than Vandy's or North Carolina's. The USC defense showed some progress against Vandy in the first half, but it regressed when Vandy went to the wildcat in the second. Here are my questions for the defense this week. Can the linebackers shed blocks and cover gap assignments better? If not, will we make scheme adjustments that will put the defensive tackles in better position to help the young linebackers out? Have we worked with our secondary guys on improving their tackling form? Will we experience any particularly ugly coverage breakdowns against a prolific UCF passing game? If we do these things, it's a good sign that our defense is in the process of taking the next step, which would give me confidence that we should be good enough to hold off all of the offenses we play outside of Mizzou and Clemson. That's not to say I don't believe we can get to the point of being able to combat the two Tigers on this year's schedule, but just that I think we're going to need a lot of improvement over the course of the season to get there, especially against Clemson, and that we're probably going to have to score a pretty good number of points to win both of those games.
--There's been a lot of talk about special teams since the Vandy game. To be honest, though, I'm not as worried about special teams as others. The kicking game is solid; Tyler Hull didn't play his best against Vandy, but he's been solid otherwise this year. Kickoff returns are a wreck, but we'll be fine if we start taking a knee in the endzone and not fumbling on run-backs. Bruce Ellington is slated to return kicks again, and we know he's reliable. Even if he doesn't break long returns, our offense is good enough to drive the length of the field against most teams. I get nervous with Vic Hampton on punt returns, but to be honest, I could easily see the guy taking one to the house. I just worry that he'll get injured with his reckless play, which hopefully the coaches have talked to him about since the UNC game. I'm generally feeling OK about special teams. We'll see what happens.
What are you watching for against UCF?