Surprisingly overshadowed in some of the eyes of Mississippi State fans by marquee matchups like LSU, Auburn, Ole Miss, the South Carolina Gamecocks' visit to Starkville on Oct. 15 could provide the Bulldogs with their toughest test this side of Alabama.
Yes, there have been numerous headaches for the Gamecocks over the offseason, but the stars maybe aligning for South Carolina to make a return trip to the SEC Championship. Talent abound on offense. Seven starters return on Ellis Johnson's defense. A fantastic recruiting haul in the Spring. And thanks to a favorable schedule (the Gamecocks won't play Alabama and LSU, and draw Florida at home), they could be playing for more than just a Sugar Bowl berth.
Click the jump to see how the Gamecocks matchup against the Bulldogs.
The offense stars the best running back-wide receiver tandem in the nation—Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery. Chris Wilson's defense will be on their heels the entire time trying to contain the two. It will be a tough balancing act between providing enough support up front to minimize Lattimore's assault as much as possible, all while respecting Jeffery's abilities.
With a bruising style, an ability to shift gears and keen balance, Lattimore needed only one season to supplant himself among the great Gamecocks. In his freshman campaign, he rushed for 1,197 yards—the most ever by a South Carolina back not named George Rogers—and 17 touchdowns. Entering his sophomore season, he looks to only improve on those numbers.
But even though Lattimore will certainly shine, a patch-work offensive line will have to regroup after a decent showing last year.
South Carolina's offensive line did a commendable job blocking for the ground game in 2010 (but as usual the past few years, not for the quarterback). This season, two seniors (Rokevious Watkins and Terrence Campbell) were moved to different positions and two redshirt freshmen (A.J. Cann and Cody Gibson) could see significant playing time. There is also a chance stud-recruit Brandon Shell, who had shoulder surgery earlier this year, will be called on to contribute. The Bulldogs' line, mainly tackles Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd, will have to pounce at every Gamecock miscue if they hope to at least slow down Lattimore.
If stopping the running game isn't a challenge enough, potentially double-teaming Jeffery will open up room junior D.L Moore and sophomore Ace Sanders to contribute. Though diminutive, Sanders (5-7, 173) provides South Carolina with an explosive option. Competing with the South Carolina receiving corps will be a good test for the Bulldog secondary but given their experience and knack for coming up with a big plays (a few bone-head throws by Garcia will help), Jeffery will get his numbers while the rest of the wide outs should have quiet nights.
If that's not enough fireworks, the Gamecocks' defense also provides some pop. Outside of the James Carmon v. Blaine Clausell battle for starting left tackle, Mississippi State's offensive line isn't as big as a question mark as South Carolina's. But whoever forms the Bulldogs' starting line will have to face some nasty Gamecock defenders.
South Carolina returns to two established ends in Devin Taylor and Melvin Ingram, both of whom were 2011 Preseason All-SEC members. Taylor notched 7.5 of the team's conference-leading 41 sacks last year. Sophomore Chaz Sutton and senior Byron McKnight provide valuable depth. The interior isn't as deep, but Preseason All-SEC tackle Travian Robertson is no push over.
Oh, yeah. Then there's the consensus No.1 overall prospect in the nation—über-recruit Jadeveon Clowney. The defensive end, who waited until Valentine's Day to make his highly anticipated announcement on which school he'd sign with, will probably begin his college career as a passing rushing specialist thanks to his one-in-a-generation talent. In summary, thank goodness Chris Relf can move around the pocket because our tackles are going to have their hands full.
For all the talent the Gamecocks' front six have (seven if you count the "spur" position), there is no reason for their secondary to give up 241.9 passing yards like they did last year. In an effort to shake things up, Akeen Auguste will move from safety to cornerback, joining stand-out corner Stephon Gilmore. Junior D.J. Swearinger is a decent option at safety, as is sophomore Jimmy Legree. If Relf has developed into the quarterback that everyone believes he has, this is the type of team he should slice up, a la Ole Miss or Michigan. Beyond Gilmore, this group doesn't scare.
The Gamecocks are primed to make another run for Atlanta and are a darkhorse to play for the National Championship. They possess good coaching and bounds of talent. But if Mississippi State wants to make the jump from a good team to a great one, it's games like this they need to win. But it could also be the best team they face all year.