Alabama v. South Carolina is not usually the most intriguing match-up on the schedule, but few games showcased an identity more than Alabama's 20-6 victory over South Carolina a year ago in Tuscaloosa. That was the game that Mark Ingram took over the lifeless offense and carried his team to victory and carried himself into Heisman contention. Combined with a relentless defensive performance, for Alabama as a whole few games defined the will and the perseverance of the 2009 team more than that one.
Moving forward one year, Nick Saban has been outspoken in his belief that, for better or for worse, the same thing will be true this weekend. If he has said it once this week, he has said it one hundred times: "This is probably the game that will define us more than any other game we play this year."
Why this game? I figure for two reasons, mainly.
First, South Carolina is not a bad team by any stretch. They've got some flaws, admittedly, but they do have several strengths and they have quite a few players that Saban himself recruited heavily. At worst they are the second team in the SEC East, and probably no lower than fifth overall in the SEC. If the struggles of LSU continue, it can likely be said that this will be, at worst, the second toughest opponent we play in the final seven weeks of the regular season, and even that is a close race with Auburn. Some teams you can slide by even with a relatively poor overall performance, but this team probably is not one of them.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, is the off week issue. Throughout the week Saban has tried to dismiss any notion of that being a competitive disadvantage for Alabama, but clearly that is mere pretext being used in hopes that it will not affect the mindset of our players moving forward. If the off week issue really did not put Alabama at a competitive disadvantage, we wouldn't have fought for months through the SEC in an attempt to get some relief, nor would opposing schools have been so reticent to make any schedule changes. It's clearly a disadvantage, but nevertheless one we will have to overcome if we are to get where we want to go. In that regard, South Carolina is a harbinger of things to come. We must find a way to win football games against opponents that are more well rested and more well prepared than we are, and that likely becomes even more of an issue for this week after back-to-back games with Arkansas and Florida. In that sense, this game sets the tone moving forward.
And remember, this was the game where Greg McElroy imploded last year, having one of the worst quarterback performances in the post-Stallings era. He spoke about that earlier this week, and as usual he was nothing if not candid:
I just learned a lot about myself in the fact that last year I played with a lot of false confidence. Up until the South Carolina game I wasn't sure what I was capable of. I had had success, but a lot of that success was, I wouldn't say lucky, but it was fortunate. I had a lot of good things happen to me the first five or six games, but the South Carolina game really opened my eyes that if I don't go out and really prepare and understand and handle myself in the right way I'm not going to have success at this level.
Along those lines, also keep two more things in mind, namely the knee injury to Julio Jones and the fact that Alabama has struggled to throw the football vertically to date in SEC play, with only two completions of 20+ yards and both of those coming on short passes to Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. Plus, of course, McElroy has been dinged up in his own right the past couple of weeks, including minor ankle and hip injuries, not to mention what sounded eerily like a mild concussion a week ago.
Given all of that, combined with Ingram's romp a year ago, expect South Carolina to do everything within their power to make McElroy and the passing game beat them through the air. I doubt they make the same mistake that Florida did a week ago -- trying to stop the running game with raw size, thereby overly exposing themselves against the short and intermediate passing game that we generally execute so well -- but I imagine they will key the run and try to force McElroy to hit some plays over the top.
Hopefully the passing game comes through this year in ways that it didn't a year ago. South Carolina seemingly has a lot of talent in the defensive backfield, and they are second in the SEC in terms of adjusted sack rate, yet somehow the Gamecocks are near the bottom of the country in pass efficiency defense. The whole thing is just baffling to me, and in some ways their whole team is a bit of a headscratcher. After years of offensive incompetence the South Carolina offense has finally gotten out of its own way this year, yet the defense has suddenly become suspect in some key situations.
Take the Auburn game two weeks ago for an example. The Gamecocks offense goes on the road in SEC play and puts it in the end zone four times, posts almost 400 yards of total offense, and converts 50% of third downs. Dream scenario for South Carolina, right? That would have been the offensive performance that would have turned so many of those heartbreaking losses during Spurrier's tenure into key wins. But yet the defense falls apart with the game on the line. Auburn scores 28 points in the final 31 minutes, gashes them for 300+ rushing yards, and it's heartbreak all over for South Carolina. Different way of getting there, but heartbreak nevertheless.
Still, though, again it's a team with its fair share of talent. The potential is there for them to possibly take the next step and, with the struggles by Florida, perhaps make a serious bid at a trip to Atlanta. For whatever reason it hasn't come together yet, but that still does not change the fact that this could be a very dangerous opponent for us.
In some ways, I think Stuck hit on the key point a couple of days ago. This is not the toughest road environment we will face (LSU), it is not the toughest match-up that we will face (Arkansas), it is not the most talented team that we will face (Florida), and it is not an opponent utterly obsessed with one-upping us (Auburn). However, if you could ever rationally identify a trap game this would most certainly be it, a road game after two tough, physical games against a solid team with the luxury of an off week one year removed from an ugly home win against this same team.
Coming into the year, we all knew that the three week stretch of Arkansas, Florida, and South Carolina was going to be the ultimate test. So far, so good on that front, but we're not out of the woods just yet. South Carolina is a dangerous foe in what will be a tough environment, and while we can probably overcome poor performances against Ole Miss and Tennessee simply due to superior talent and greater depth, the same cannot be said of the Gamecocks. We'll need to play at a high level in order to secure victory this weekend, and if not then the odds are that you better have some Tums left over from a year ago.
Hope for the best.