As we move on from the ghouls and goblins of Halloween and turn the calendar to November, Vanderbilt football will be looking to exorcise some demons of their own with nemesis South Carolina coming to FirstBank Stadium Saturday for a 6:30 kickoff. No team has had Vandy’s number like the Gamecocks, who have inexplicably won 13 in a row over the Commodores dating back to 2009. Perhaps none of those losses stung worse than last year’s defeat in coach Clark Lea’s inaugural season. With Vandy holding a 20-14 lead, South Carolina quarterback Zeb Noland (who was a graduate assistant coach with the team) easily directed a 75-yard touchdown drive against a soft Commodore prevent defense to take a 21-20 lead with 37 seconds left which ultimately ended Vandy’s best chance to pick up a conference win for the season.
In an unusual twist, both teams are coming off games against the same opponent – Missouri. The Commodores had a bye week after falling just short against the Tigers – 17-14 – despite Missouri begging Vandy to beat them by serving up 3 turnovers to the Commodores, including a fumbled scoop and score touchdown. The Tigers were much more impressive against South Carolina, making sure the Gamecocks’ entry into the top 25 was a very brief stay by embarrassing them at home 23-10. If you subscribe to the transitive property of football that would bode well for Vandy, but alas we know football doesn’t work that way.
Offensively, South Carolina ranks 62nd in the nation in points per game with 30.2. They rank 83rd in passing yards per game (225.3), 98th in rushing yards per game (127.5) and 99th in total yards per game (352.8).
Of course, the Gamecocks’ headline player is quarterback Spencer Rattler – the former Oklahoma signal-caller whose career odyssey has been well-chronicled. He has completed 64% of his passes for 1637 yards this season with only 5 touchdowns to 9 interceptions. His top targets are wideouts Antwane Wells Jr. with 37 catches, 464 yards, and 2 touchdowns and Jalen Brooks with 21 catches, and 340 yards. He also has a pair of excellent tight ends to throw to: Austin Stogner with 17 catches, 203 yards, 1 touchdown and NFL prospect Jahim Bell with 13 catches for 157 yards to go along with 64 yards and 2 touchdowns rushing the ball. South Carolina’s bell cow at running back is Marshawn Lloyd who has 100 rushes for 556 yards and 9 touchdowns. He is also a threat to catch the ball out of the backfield with 17 catches for 173 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Defensively, South Carolina ranks 60th in the nation in points allowed per game (24.6). They rank 31st in passing yards allowed per game (196.4), 94th in rushing yards allowed per game (165), and 51st in total yards allowed per game (361.4).
Defensive players to watch include former 5-star recruit Jordan Burch at defensive end, who has 30 tackles, 4 TFL, and 2.5 sacks for the season. Also on the defensive line is the imposing Tonka Hemingway, who has 17 tackles, 4 TFL, and 3 sacks. The linebackers feature Sherrod Greene who has an interception, 28 tackles, 1 TFL, and 1.5 sacks this season. The Gamecocks also have a talented secondary which includes projected NFL draft 1st round cornerback Cam Smith and safety Nick Emmanwori who leads the team with 51 tackles.
Unfortunately, Vandy now sits as the only SEC team without a conference win. As Commodore fans perused the schedule at the beginning of the season, there is no question Missouri and South Carolina were considered 1A and 1B as the best opportunities to steal a conference win. Now that one of those opportunities has passed, suddenly the stakes for this game seem magnified. For whatever it’s worth, Missouri was a two- touchdown favorite and won by only three. South Carolina is favored by “only” a single touchdown. And speaking of odds, Vandy has already surpassed the Vegas preseason number for win total this season, so in that sense this year could already be considered a success no matter what happens from here on out. Still, there would be a significant level of disappointment in finishing the season 0’fer the SEC and extending that embarrassing losing streak into next year. Most of these Commodore players were on the roster last year and remember a game they could have, and should have, won. They know this is a winnable revenge game, hopefully Saturday they will show it…