The South Carolina Gamecocks are set to open their SEC schedule in style with a matchup against the No. 2 Crimson Tide tomorrow, and we sat down with Brent Taylor from sister site Roll Bama Roll to get an inside perspective on how Alabama fans are feeling about this one.
Let’s talk about the general state of the program. With Clemson (ugh) having now won two of the three national championship meetings between y’all — and with last season’s being such a shocking blowout — is there any concern in Tuscaloosa that the sun is starting to set on Nick Saban and his dynasty? As a fan of such a program, how does one even manage reasonable expectations when the bar has been set so high?
There’s handwringing every year. If Alabama loses, half of our fanbase expects that to be the end of the dynasty. And if Alabama doesn’t lose, they/we find some specific area that isn’t perfect on the team and project future losses to Georgia, Auburn, LSU, and Clemson because of it. Granted, those expectations are set so high in the first place by Nick Saban’s never ending quest towards perfection, but our fans do tend to hyper-focus on any little thing and think the sky is finally falling.
As for how to manage that? I don’t know, to be honest. As a writer, I always do my best to try and remind the readers to enjoy when things go well, as opposed to just fearing for things to go wrong. It can be tough, though, when it feels like the entire national media ignores an Alabama win and is just waiting to cheer for something bad to happen to the program. But maybe that’s just us having the self-absorbed mentality we’re always accused of.
Being in different divisions, and especially with the recent realignment, Alabama and South Carolina really don’t play each other much. As such, my feelings toward the Tide are pretty neutral, and I’d say many in the USC fanbase are similar. What’s the general perception of the Gamecock program among the Bama faithful?
Honestly, we’re pretty neutral towards you guys as well. We’ll probably root for USC if you’re playing anyone in the SEC West or Tennessee/Florida/Georgia. There is some bad feelings still left from that infamous Stephen Garcia game, but those are honestly directed more towards that QB than the Gamecocks themselves (for example: Almost every Alabama loss following that 2010 season up until 2017 came at the hands of a relatively unknown or obscure QB having a career night — which have since been labeled a “Garcia Moment” by our fanbase).
We are excited to finally have the chance to revenge that 2010 game, though, as USC is the only SEC program that Nick Saban does not have a winning record against.
What position group is the biggest cause for concern right now?
Going in to this season, the inside linebackers were by far the biggest concern. Junior All-American Dylan Moses tore his ACL in fall camp, as did redshirt senior Josh McMillon. With almost no warning before the season started, Alabama had to come up with two new players to captain the middle of the defense — and it wound up being two true freshmen, Shane Lee and Christian Harris. The two were talented recruits, but the potential for inexperience causing defensive breakdowns was running rampant in everyone’s minds. However, the two have thus far proved not just talented, but consistent as well (in fact, more so than Moses and NFL Draft pick Mack Wilson were last year). Granted, the competition level has to be factored in, but the two have looked good thus far.
On the other hand, the Tide running game has been abysmal. The stats don’t look too bad because we’ve had a 75-yard wide receiver screen count as a run, as well as a couple of huge runs from the backups in the 4th quarter, to boost the yards per carry. But the starting backs Najee Harris and Brian Robinson have really struggled to get anything going. Some of that has been on the offensive line, which has dealt with injuries and shuffling, but a lot has been the backs displaying poor vision and a lack of patience to find holes. Thus far, it hasn’t mattered, as Tua Tagovailoa and the passing offense have scored at will on Duke and New Mexico State, but there is worry that a better defense may force us to become one-dimensional and then feast in the pass rush.
Conversely, what is Alabama’s biggest strength on a team that’s full of them?
The passing game. Tagovailoa is generational QB whose like has not been seen at Alabama, and he’s only looked better this year now that his knee and ankles are finally healthy. He’s worked on his pocket presence and being willing to take check-down routes when needed, and just generally looks unstoppable. But the receiver group might be even better. Jerry Jeudy won the Biletnikoff trophy last year, and is hoping to make the case to win it in back-to-back years. Basically every catch turns into a highlight reel moment, and it looks like someone is just spamming the juke stick in Madden when the ball is in his hands.
There’s Henry Ruggs III, a 6’1” receiver with a reported 4.2 speed (I don’t believe he’s that fast, but he’s probably not far off). He’s much less refined than Jeudy, but that kind of speed is dangerous, plus he likes to think he’s a running back or a tight end and just run through people. DeVonta Smith is slighter than the other two, but might actually have the most reliable hands. Finally, there’s the diminutive Jaylen Waddle, who rivals Ruggs in speed and is the team’s punt return specialist.
All four of these guys are threats to score any time the ball is in their hands, and new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian has made it a point to get them the ball in space on short passing plays a lot more often than last year, when all four were used most often as deep threats.
We’re all familiar with the Tide’s household names. Is there anyone under the radar that Gamecock fans should be watching out for?
Watch out for Terrell Lewis. The redshirt junior outside linebacker is a 6’6” 250 pound athletic freak that’s missed all of the last two seasons due to freak injuries in preseason (he did make it back for a few plays at the end of the 2017 season, where he came in to the game just in time to sack Georgia QB Jake Fromm in overtime of the National Championship). He’s finally healthy this year, and has been a terror on the edge in his first two games.
Finally, care to make a prediction?
The whole “true freshman QB with a lot of potential” thing really puts a wrinkle in things. Had Jake Bentley still been the guy, I wouldn’t think USC scores more than 13 on the Tide. But again, maybe it’s just PTSD from Garcia, but the unproved young QB scares me. So I think the Gamecocks get 3-4 scores on Alabama. However, I can’t seen South Carolina really slowing down Alabama’s offense, so my final score prediction is going to be 48-21.
Thanks again to Brent for his detailed and thoughtful responses, and be sure to check out the GABA perspective on Roll Bama Roll!