Beating up on Colonel Reb was certainly nice, but as the proverbial saying goes there is no rest for the weary, and that saying rings particularly true for teams competing in the SEC. After beating Ole Miss 22-3 in Oxford, Alabama returns to the friendly confines of Bryant-Denny Stadium this week for its fourth conference game in as many weeks as South Carolina and the Ol' Ball Coach head to Tuscaloosa. The Gamecocks come into this game with a solid 5-1 record and a top-25 ranking, so as is usually the case, the Tide will need to play well in order to insure that it emerges victorious. Let's take a closer look at the match-ups:
Alabama Offense v. South Carolina Defense
The strength of this South Carolina team, as has been the case with nearly all of Steve Spurrier's teams in Columbia, is on the defensive side of the ball, with a defense led by a couple of coaches with strong Alabama ties: Lorenzo Ward ('Bama alum) and Ellis Johnson (two stints, and a national title ring, as an assistant at 'Bama). The Gamecocks are a bit of a different animal defensively in terms of schemes, and as much as possible they try to operate out of a base 4-2-5 set. Whether you've noticed or not, South Carolina has really been an NFL factory the past several years for talent in the defensive backfield, and in many ways the 4-2-5 is just a way of playing to their strengths and getting their best players on the field.
Individually, the standout of the South Carolina defense is clearly linebacker Eric Norwood. At 6'1 and 250+ pounds, Norwood will likely be a star on Sunday one day, and with injuries continuing to plague Greg Hardy, Norwood is probably the best pass rusher in the conference these days. Nevertheless, don't paint him as a Rahim Alem-esque one-trick pony who can only rush the passer, just look at his overall stat line on the year... 38 tackles, 6.5 tackles for loss, 6 sacks for a loss of 42 yards, 5 QB hurries, 2 interceptions, 1 forced fumble, and 2 blocked kicks. Bottom line, the kid can do it all. He can rush the passer, he can play the run, he can play the pass, and he can make an impact on special teams. He is nothing short of a defensive coordinator's dream, plain and simple.
Aside from Norwood, the starting eleven on this team was very good. And I say was because injuries have really hit this unit hard. As I mentioned earlier, they had a great starting eleven, but quality depth was never on their side, and the injury bug has only made things worse. Defensive tackle Travian Robertson tore his ACL earlier in the year, and middle linebacker Rodney Paulk also went down for the year with a knee injury. For a unit with very little proven, quality depth, both injuries hit hard, and making matters worse starting cornerback Akeem Auguste was recently suspended for violating team / university rules, and will not play in this game.
So, we really don't know exactly what to make of the South Carolina defense right now. There are definitely a lot of good players on the defensive side of the ball, that we do know. Aside from Norwood, defensive end Cliff Matthews is a fine player, and Shaq Wilson and Chris Culliver are both very good players in their own right. Moreover, they do have some young guys contributing early, particularly cornerback Stephon Gilmore, a player Saban himself recruited very hard to come to Alabama. The rest of the starters are generally pretty solid at worst, so it's a decent group in that respect.
On the other hand, though, again, injuries have hit this group hard and the depth really just is not there, so in many ways this does have the look of a vulnerable group. The loss of Robertson and Paulk have really hurt the run defense, and it has looked pretty ugly in the past couple of weeks. South Carolina State ran for 170 yards against them, and Kentucky went over 200 yards, both of which is pretty bad news when you set off to head to Tuscaloosa.
In many ways, the defensive backfield, again, has led the Gamecock attack. It's a young group, but they have generally been able to get the job done to date. But, of course, looking at the schedule, you really do have to question the strength of their six opponents to date. North Carolina State, Florida Atlantic, and South Carolina State all have anemic passing attacks, and the Georgia offense with Joe Cox hasn't exactly lit up the scoreboard in Athens. Likewise, Kentucky many have the worst quarterback play of any team in the SEC, and the Gamecocks got to play for more than a quarter against the back-up. Taking Jevan Snead to the woodshed was certainly a good performance, but then again pretty much every good defense that has faced the Rebels have done that (Alabama included), so who really knows how much that says? And, of course, the suspension of Auguste will do nothing to help the Gamecocks on this front.
For Alabama, the Tide really just has to work its way out of the miniature funk it fell into last weekend in Oxford. We know this unit can be extremely good, but Greg McElroy has to be a lot more disciplined in his progressions this week, and frankly the offensive play-calling needs to improve, not to mention red zone execution in general. Fortunately, though, we have been running the ball very well as of late, and we've still got a ton of talent just about everywhere offensively. We don't necessarily need a breakout game here, but an improvement over Ole Miss would be good news.
All in all, I think you have to be cautiously optimistic here for the Tide, so long as you can do a decent job of blocking Norwood and Matthews in pass protection sets. South Carolina certainly has a solid defense -- and honestly a very good one if they could stay healthy -- but again injuries and suspensions have really made there lack of quality depth an issue, and while you still probably aren't going to be running up and down the field against these guys, if we execute better than we did last week against Ole Miss, I do believe it's reasonable to think that we will have some degree of success. If nothing else, we ought to be able to wear these guys down over the course of four quarters and take advantage of their lack of depth.
Alabama Defense v. South Carolina Offense
Perhaps the biggest piece of good news for the Gamecocks this year has been the emergence of quarterback Stephen Garcia. The highly-touted Florida product struggled immensely his first couple of years in Columbia -- about all he did of positive note was to win the Six Beer Challenge -- but he has really turned the corner in 2009. He hasn't gotten all of the publicity that has gone to 'Bama signal caller Greg McElroy, but if you look at Garcia's stat line -- 61% completion rate, over 7.0 yards per attempt, and a 3-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio -- he has played at a level very comparable to McElroy. Furthermore, Garcia is a legitimate dual-threat quarterback, and at 6'2 and approximately 225 pounds, he can be a load to bring down in the open field. After a very ugly start against North Carolina State, the South Carolina offense has actually performed pretty well (arguably as well as it has since Spurrier arrived), and clearly Garcia's progression as a player are the foundation of that improvement.
Admittedly, though, Garcia does have plenty of help at the skill positions, where the Gamecocks have more than their fair share of big, physical playmakers. True freshman Alshon Jeffery is making nice progress on his degree in gas pumping, and while he may not be having quite the kind of year Julio Jones and A.J. Green had last year, he's very close. He has "NFL" written all over him even at 19 years old. Furthermore, Tori Gurley is an incredibly difficult match-up for any cornerback, coming in at around 6'5 and 225 pounds, and Jason Barnes is another big target. And while Moe Brown is the smallest of the group, he's a fine player in his own right, and he's probably the best of the bunch right now. Making matters even better for the Gamecocks, tight end Weslye Saunders comes in at 6'5 and 280 pounds, and he can be a difference-maker in his own right. Bottom line, Garcia has clearly made a lot of progress this season in his own right, but by the same token he's got a lot of great players to throw the football to as well. For a defensive coordinator, this is a group good enough to keep you up late at night.
The weakness of this offense, as has always been the case under Spurrier, is up front on the offensive line. It's not so much that this unit has played poorly, per se, as much as it is that this group just doesn't have a lot of good players anyway, and injuries have hurt considerably. Left tackle Jarriel King is probably the best player they have, and he's not really a standout in his own right. The rest of the line has pretty much been a patchwork job. Hutch Eckerson is starting at right tackle now after the flu and some other injuries caught up with Quintin Richardson, and he has really struggled with edge rushers. Starting left guard Terrence Campbell is going to miss a lot of time with an injury, and that has caused a lot of re-shuffling in its own right. Alabama native Heath Batchelor saw some time there, but he left the program a couple of days ago, and redshirt freshman T.J. Johnson has been forced to play. There has even been talk that true freshman Nick Allison -- who has redshirted to date -- may have to play against the Tide. And making matters even worse, center Garrett Anderson missed the Kentucky game with a back injury, and while he may be back in some capacity against the Tide, he likely won't be 100% and will rotate time with Lemuel Jeanpierre. Bottom line, South Carolina just isn't a very good unit up front. They play hard, seemingly, but they don't have very much talent and injuries have just killed them to date.
The running game for the Gamecocks will be a three-headed monster with carries being split between Kenny Miles, Jarvis Giles, and Brian Maddox. Miles and Giles are scat-back type players, and Maddox is a bruising runner who came into the year as a starter. Maddox really struggled early, though, and gave way to the youngsters Miles and Giles, both of which sport pretty impressive yards per carry average. With his 100-yard performance last weekend against Kentucky, look for Miles to get the bulk of the work against the Tide. On the other hand, though, you can make some legitimate questions about just how good these backs are. The line is obviously in shambles, and while the raw production from Miles and Giles looks impressive on paper, it should be noted that most of that yardage was racked up against the likes of Florida Atlantic and South Carolina State. Giles, for example, may be averaging 5.8 yards per carry, but if you take away those two cupcakes, he's suddenly averaging less than 3.0 yards per carry against the rest of the schedule, and largely the same critique (to a lesser extent) can be made against Miles.
Defensively, we all know that the Tide has the look of an elite unit, and really the only big question mark to date for the 'Bama defense is exactly what happens this week with the return of Jerrell Harris. Obviously we'll all have to tune in to find out for sure, but I imagine we'll see a lot of both Harris and Nico Johnson on Saturday, and we'll have some package specific roles for both players. Who "starts" is really a moot point, and both will likely be breaking a sweat come Saturday night.
Regardless of which of those two players ultimately gets the starting nod, the real key for Alabama on Saturday will be dominating this game at the line of scrimmage. Even with all of the other issues notwithstanding, South Carolina has a small offensive line -- the five starters average right at 300 pounds -- and we need to take full advantage of those weaknesses. Our defensive line needs to get after Garcia and dominate these guys in the running game. If we can do that, we're probably in good shape here. On the other hand, though, if Garcia gets comfortable in the pocket, look for South Carolina to have more than their fair share of success. I don't care how good the Alabama defense supposedly is, we're going to have a lot of issues defending their skill position players if Garcia gets time to throw the football. As is usually the case, look for this match-up to be decided in the trenches.
Putting It All Together
All in all, 'Bama comes into this game as approximately 18-point favorites, and it's not overly difficult to see why Vegas is so bullish on the Tide. We look very good right now, we have more top-end talent and better depth throughout the roster, and while South Carolina's 5-1 record may look nice on paper, who have they really played? Their five wins, to date, consists of a Division 1-AA team, a non-BCS team, a bottom of the barrel ACC team, Kentucky, and a victory at home over Ole Miss, plus a loss to a Georgia team that looks to finish up 6-6 at best. Look at their schedule to date... how many ranked teams do you see? Zero. So there are plenty of reasons for 'Bama fans to feel good going into this game.
But on the other hand, in reality, life in the SEC is just never easy, and the gap between the really good SEC teams and the middle of the road SEC teams is always relatively small. Regardless of how you break it down, truth be told, SEC teams are always a lot more similar than they are different, and that applies this week as well to the Gamecocks. South Carolina may have a lot going against them in this game, but they've still got a lot of fine players in their own right and they are far from a pushover. And, hell, right now they can probably stake as legitimate of a claim to the #3 spot in the SEC as anyone else.
And rest assured, these guys will come out ready to fight. Steve Spurrier has been poor-mouthing his team all week, all but completely writing off this game to the media as a guaranteed loss. Don't buy that garbage for one second. Spurrier loathes 'Bama with every fiber of his being, and hell will freeze over before he concedes us anything. We may take his Gamecocks behind the woodshed and he may need Tommy Johns surgery after throwing that visor all night, but we'll have to earn every bit of it. He's looking to show that he's making progress at South Carolina, and he and his team will fight 'til they drop on Saturday night.
For 'Bama, it's really the same story that it is every week. You never get a week off in the SEC... one challenge is simply replaced by yet another challenge, and regardless of who you play, you're going to have to come out and play good football if you want to win, and if you do that you're probably going to get beat. For all of the advantages that 'Bama has on paper over the Gamecocks, that's still the ultimate scenario we are facing this week.
Hope for the best.