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South Carolina at Ole Miss: Keys and a pick

Perhaps not a must-win anymore, but still a very important game.

Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The South Carolina Gamecocks head into Oxford for a clash against the Ole Miss Rebels this afternoon with a lighter load on their shoulders, now that a makeup game against Akron has been scheduled. The pressure to pick up this road win for the purposes of bowl eligibility has abated somewhat, but it’s still a critically important matchup if the Gamecocks want to have a successful season — and not just one that meets the bare minimum. This is a evenly-matched pair of teams, so let’s take a look at what South Carolina needs to focus on.

The keys

For the love of god, get off to a decent start. It’s been a glaring problem in just about every South Carolina game this year, and it was excruciating against Tennessee. The Vols hadn’t scored a first-quarter touchdown against an FBS opponent all season — until they met the Gamecocks. South Carolina has done an admirable job with halftime adjustments and rallying in the third and fourth quarters, but it’d be nice to see a complete and competent effort from the opening whistle for once. The Ole Miss defense could provide plenty of opportunities in this regard, and in a road environment, the Gamecocks need to take advantage of them.

Turnovers. In another evenly-matched game against Tennessee last week, Jake Bentley threw an interception that the Vols were ultimately able to cash in for a touchdown. While the Gamecocks ended up winning, they made life more difficult for themselves, and you never want to spot an opponent points. Additionally, South Carolina was unable to force any Tennessee turnovers of their own. The Gamecock defense is obviously regressing to the mean after having a couple of voracious ball-hawking seasons, but still — you’d like to see a little more here. Regardless of whether there are any Ole Miss turnovers today, a clean sheet from Bentley and the Gamecocks would be very helpful.

Limit big plays. Ole Miss has quite a few playmakers on the offensive side of the ball and can score in a blink. South Carolina’s bend-don’t-break defense has turned in some salty performances this season, forcing many opposing offenses into field goal attempts despite reaching the red zone. The Gamecocks need another showing like that today to avoid falling into a hole against the Rebels.

The pick

While I’m worried about the Rebels’ potent offense, their defense is so atrocious that I think South Carolina has a good chance to not just hang around, but come away with the win. In all likelihood, this will be another back-and-forth stressfest that shreds every last nerve in the South Carolina fanbase, but I’m hoping the Gamecocks have just enough. After all, as we’ve seen, they’re pretty good at dragging other teams into the mud with them. I’ll stick with my earlier prediction of 31-28.