What if I were to tell you that Stephen Garcia was having a career year? Don't laugh. It's true.
Admittedly we are only one-third of the way through the season, but the early returns for Garcia are impressive. He has posted a QB rating of 161.6, a good 42 points higher than his rating from a year ago, and good enough to put him in the top twenty nationally. Furthermore, he is completing nearly 70% of his passes, averaging over 13 yards per completion, and over 9 yards per attempt. A year ago Garcia completed only 55% of his passes and averaged fewer than 6 yards per attempt. And the untimely interceptions have largely gone away too. He's only been picked off twice this season, both of which came in the route of Furman.
The biggest shortcoming with Garcia is his continued poor pocket presence, which inevitably leads him to taking a high number of sacks. Having said that, though, the 2010 version of the Gamecocks features its usually poor offensive line that is generally incompetent in pass protection, and because of that South Carolina is going to give up a high number of sacks regardless. At least Garcia has enough mobility to make up some yardage on some busted plays, as evidenced by his 83 rushing yards on the season despite being sacked nine times.
In other words, with the notable exception of two untimely fumbles against Auburn, Garcia has generally played very well in 2010. The fact that Steve Spurrier seems hellbent on benching him says far more about Spurrier's inherently neurotic view of his quarterbacks than it does about any performance shortcomings on the part of Garcia.
And then you have Alshon Jeffery, and, um, yeah Lane, he's not exactly pumpin' gas in Columbia. In fact, Jeffery leads the SEC in catches, receiving yards, and yards per reception. His 18 yards per catch is downright scary, and truth be told you could argue that he is the best receiver in the league, even considering Julio Jones and A.J. Green. In essence, Jeffery is almost a clone of Jones at 6'4 and 233 pounds, and he brings Green's vertical threat to the game. In that regard, he's the best of both worlds.
Fortunately, Marcus Lattimore, looks to be a bit of a paper tiger. For all of the early-season hype that he received, he comes into this game averaging only 4.4 yards per carry -- putting him 155th in the country in that category -- and the best run defense he has faced to yet, Auburn, held him to a mere 33 yards on 14 carries. Lattimore is a physical runner, but he's not a great athlete and he does not provide much of a big-play threat, as evidenced by the fact that he has only three carries to date that have gone for more than sixteen yards. That's not to say he is a bad player, but he does somewhat fit the stereotype of a three-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust back, and he's generally going to be someone who needs a high number of carries in order to be effective.
Combined, though, South Carolina presents us quite a few defensive challenges, and they will put pressure on us in ways that other teams have not. We have not faced a receiver to date anywhere near the level of Jeffery, and for the legitimate criticisms that can be made of Lattimore, we have not yet faced an interior runner to date with anything near his physical style of play. Moreover, Garcia has played well so far, and while not exactly Tim Tebow, he's a dual-threat who can make some plays with his legs if things break down.
Defensively, Alabama has been making progress in recent weeks and is coming off its best performance of the year, but South Carolina will threaten us in different ways and will thus necessitate a different defensive response.
For example, the nickel package has been our base alignment the past three weeks, but that will go out of the window if South Carolina tries to establish the run between the tackles. Furthermore, Marcell Dareus is at his pass rushing best when playing inside aligned over the guards and center, but can we afford to do that against Lattimore? Will that make us too small at the point of attack along the interior to stop a power running game? Moreover, exactly what do we do with Jeffery? We do not have a cornerback in his league, and defending him will likely require multiple defenders working in unison in some capacity. In essence, it's just a very different type of offensive attack than we've been facing the past three weeks, and we will have to defend it differently.
And, while the defense has been improving, the key to our defensive success remains red zone play. In the past four games Alabama opponents have driven into the red zone 13 times, but 'Bama has only allowed two touchdowns while finding a way to generate several key turnovers. In terms of point prevention in the red zone, Alabama leads the nation, but admittedly it's a bit hard to imagine that high of a level of success being sustainable moving forward. Simply put, we need to play better before opposing teams reach the red zone, and that point probably should not be taken lightly considering that South Carolina comes into this game leading the SEC in red zone offense, scoring 13 touchdowns in 16 trips to the red zone.
The good news for the Alabama defense is two-fold:
One, for all the threat posed by Jeffery, Garcia, and Lattimore, the South Carolina offensive line is once again terrible, particularly in pass protection. The run blocking has been inconsistent, and injuries have become an issue. Quentin Richardson will likely miss the season after shoulder surgery, Hutch Eckerson missed two games after injuring himself in a touchdown celebration against Georgia, and nagging injuries have slowed several others. The tackles are better than the interior linemen, but even they aren't particularly good. Outside of Vanderbilt, it's probably the worst offensive line in the conference. As Spurrier recently said regarding his offensive line, "We're stuck with what we've got."
Two, while Jeffery may be the best receiver in the conference, South Carolina has almost nothing once you get past him. Their second leading receiver on the team is Ace Sanders, a 5'7, 166 pound true freshman who has caught only five passes on the season. The receivers outside of Jeffery are non-factors to the point that, when not throwing in his direction, South Carolina channels the passing game through tight end Tori Gurley, tailback Marcus Lattimore and fullback Patrick DiMarco.
And that is how Alabama must stop the Gamecocks defensively on Saturday afternoon. This is not your typically bad South Carolina offense, and in fact it may be the best to date fielded by Spurrier in Columbia. They've got some legitimate threats, and they can score some points. Fortunately, the offensive line remains terrible and that is the key to victory defensively for the Tide. Dominate in the trenches, thereby stopping Lattimore and pressuring Garcia, and then forcing somebody, anybody, aside from Alshon Jeffery to beat you.