As we enter week five, Kentucky will take the field in Lexington for the third consecutive Saturday. The Wildcats have entered the polls for the first time in over a decade and now are playing for stakes. UK is clearly in the hunt in the SEC East and they’ll look to get to 2-0 against the division on Saturday night.
Nuts and Bolts
Will Muschamp is in his third season in Columbia and he’s quickly become a media darling. After a rocky tenure at Florida, Muschamp quickly turned the tide in the Palmetto State. The former defensive coordinator collected a 15-11 record in his first two seasons and had people drinking the Kool-Aid. A win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl created an offseason full of buzz with the Gamecocks entering the top 25 in 2018.
Through three games, it’s gone as scripted for Carolina. They’ve handled Coastal Carolina and Vanderbilt but were bullied by Georgia. An offseason of overreactions quickly turned the other way for the Gamecocks. Now they find themselves in brutal stretch with consecutive games against Kentucky, Mizzou, and Texas A&M.
Carolina’s goals are still on the table for 2018. Muschamp has an experienced offense and a fast defense. Drawing Texas A&M and Ole Miss out of the West gives them a chance to make a run at six conference wins. To do that, they must get through Kentucky.
These two squads have met 29 times with South Carolina owning a 17-11-1 series lead. After losing the entire decade of 2000-2009, Kentucky has beaten South Carolina in five of the eight meetings this decade. Most notably, the Wildcats have run off four straight under Mark Stoops. These victories were pivotal to the rebuild in Lexington and now the Cats look poised for a special season.
In the desert, Kentucky is a 1-point favorite with a total of 51. That’s a projected final score of 26-25. In their last eight home games as a favorite, Kentucky is 0-8 against the spread. Against South Carolina, Mark Stoops is 5-0 against the spread with three upset wins. As an SEC road dog at Carolina, Will Muschamp is 3-3-1 against the spread. In head-to-head matchups, Stoops owns a 3-1 against the spread advantage over Muschamp.
This past offseason, Muschamp decided to make a change at offensive coordinator as he relieved Kurt Roper of his duties. Under Roper, South Carolina averaged just 22.4 points per game. Muschamp decided he wanted to go to a tempo offense that throws the ball around and that’s what the Gamecocks have done.
After serving as the interim offensive coordinator in the Outback Bowl, Bryan McClendon was promoted to full-time and at the age of 34 became the youngest play-caller in the SEC. The former Georgia Bulldog is from the Mark Richt coaching tree and never had any experience with an a hurry-up offense. Muschamp needed a veteran to help mold the offense.
South Carolina hired Alabama off-field analyst Dan Werner. The quarterbacks coach helped create one of the SEC’s best offenses with Hugh Freeze at Ole Miss and his fingerprints are all over this Carolina group.
It starts with Jake Bentley who is off to a very hot start. The Alabama native is completing a career high 68% on passes and is averaging 260 passing yards per game. After a hot start as a freshman, Bentley suffered through a sophomore slump in 2017 but he seems to have gained some swagger back.
The strength of the offense is at receiver with Bryan Edwards, Deebo Samuel, and Shi Smith. Samuel gets all of the headlines and rightfully so. The senior leads the offense in targets, receptions, and has the ability to make a big plays.
After being a September Heisman candidate last season before a season ending injury, Samuel entered 2018 as the biggest big play threat returning in the SEC. Through three games, that could not be further from the case with 7.3 yards per reception average. As a team, South Carolina is last in the SEC in plays over 20-plus yards. This group is just not producing explosive plays.
Bryan Edwards has been the team’s most dangerous wideout to this point. The former four-star prospect leads the team in touchdowns and is averaging 15 yards per catch. Shi Smith is a shifty slot receiver who can potentially be a very nice vertical threat. There isn’t much depth at the wide receiver spot for an offense that wants to go up-tempo.
At running back, Carolina has a nice three back rotation rolling through the early part of the season. Rico Dowdle is RB1 with two 100-yard games this year. Ty’Son Williams and A.J. Turner are smaller backs but have been more explosive in their careers.
The offensive line play has been better than expected to start the season for the Gamecocks. Carolina has two mammoths at tackle and left guard Zack Bailey is one of the best interior line players in the conference. This group has gotten movement in the running game and is doing an excellent job protecting Bentley. South Carolina has only allowed three sacks on 111 passing attempts. That is very solid.
Through three games, there is no question that this offense has improved. Bentley looks much more confident and the Gamecocks have been able to establish the run. The play-calling has been balanced as Carolina has 111 passing attempts and 106 rushing attempts on the season. However, if you’re able to stop the run, they could be quick to just go all in on the pass.
It didn’t take Will Muschamp much time to build a competent defense in Columbia but he’s doing this a little different. In the past, Muschamp’s defenses dominated up front and were very aggressive in the back. Often putting their corners into man coverage. At Carolina, however, him and defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson have built a bend-but-don’t-break defense.
In success rate (a metric that measures if you’re staying in positive down and distance situations), Carolina currently ranks 105th in the FBS. Opponents have had success getting the run game going and are completing nearly 70% of their pass attempts. These are some ugly numbers but the Gamecocks standout in two key stat categories that are allowing them to have some success.
On third downs, opponents are only converting less than 25% of the time. In the red zone, opponents are only getting touchdowns on 54% of their possessions. Add this in with the ability to limit big plays and the Gamecocks have your prototypical bend-but-don’t-break-defense.
The best player on the defense, D.J. Wonnum, is a a hybrid defensive end/linebacker similar to Josh Allen will be out for Saturday. That’s a big loss because he was one of the best returning pass rushers in the SEC. In his absence, Carolina has gotten much improved play from the interior of the defensive line.
Javon Kinlaw is a 6-foot-6, 305-pound defensive tackle who has all the potential in the world. He’s big, strong, fast, and explosive. After a slow start to his career, he’s becoming a dominant force as a junior.
For the season, Kinlaw has recorded 13 tackles, 4.5 tackles for loss, 2.5 sacks, and two forced fumbles in just three games. He’s skyrocketing up draft boards and will be another tall challenge for Drake Jackson, Bunchy Stallings, and Logan Stenberg.
Around Kinlaw is a lot of youth. Kobe Smith and Aaron Sterling are both playing major snaps as sophomores. Due to the loss of Wonnum, South Carolina is using 6-foot-2 and 276-pound Keir Thomas on both the inside and outside. There are some depth questions but this is a scrappy front.
At linebacker, T.J. Brunson leads the way in the middle. The former Louisville commit had 88 tackles last season and can really run. Bryson Allen-Williams is back from injury and he’s another guy the coaching staff is using all over the place.
In the secondary, South Carolina has a really strong corner in Rashad Fenton who already has two interceptions in 2018. After that there is a lot for this group to prove. True freshman Jaycee Horn has been the most productive player from his nickel spot. Safety is a huge question spot with Steven Montac playing a strong safety type role well but he’s only 186 pounds. The Gamecocks have two transfers at the other safety spot and this could be a weakness UK could try to exploit.
In the loss to Georgia, this secondary had a very tough time getting off blocks on the perimeter. That allowed the Dawgs to pick up chunks of yards when they were able to get to the edge. With the way UK’s wideouts have blocked to this point in the season, that’s a big advantage for Eddie Gran’s offense.
This is a very well coached group but it is obvious that they have some flaws. The scheme will have these players in the right place but if Javon Kinlaw is unable to dominate it could be a long day for the Gamecocks. The best thing this group does is rush the passer as they rank 18th in the FBS in sack rate. UK’s pass protection will be challenged.
Special Teams Breakdown
For the first time this season, UK will be facing an opponent who has a clear special teams advantage. It all starts, again, with Deebo Samuel and his three career kickoff return touchdowns.
Samuel is back to his old ways with a 26.3 yards per return average on three attempts. This will be something to keep an eye on and it’s worth noting that UK kicked away from him last season.
The return department is more than Samuel, however. Bryan Edwards has stepped in as the team’s primary punt returner and he’s done an excellent job in picking up hidden yardage with fair catches.
In the kicking department, Joseph Charlton is averaging over 41 yards per punt with a third of them being downed inside the 20. Parker White is perfect on field goals after missing 11 last season. The South Carolina kickoff team is producing touchbacks at at 73.7% clip.
This has been a very strong special teams unit through three games.
Keys to Victory
–Through four games, Kentucky has been a very strong second half team. The Wildcats are outscoring opponents by a count of 86-13. Carolina is outscoring its opponents by a count of 38-33 in the second half. UK will have the advantage late in the game but they can not dig a deep hole early. Carolina has had early offensive success against each team its faced this season. Surviving the early storm will be pivotal.
-When looking at stats for both teams, third downs when UK is on offense and when Carolina is defense really jumps out. Kentucky is converting 52.% of its attempts against SEC competition while the Gamecocks are allowing opponents to convert at just a 25% clip. The Gamecocks make you pay when you are in third and long due to their success with the pass rush. Surprisingly, however, they’ve been very good on third and short too. What happens here could determine the game.
-The Gamecocks have one of the most efficient offenses in the country but struggle to produce big plays. Therefore, they find themselves in the red zone a lot. When they get there, touchdowns are only happening 57.1% of the time. Kentucky’s opponents are only scoring touchdowns on 40% of their red zone trips. Forcing field goals will be vital.
–Kentucky’s rushing offense ranks 37th in efficiency while South Carolina’s run defense sits at 100. Their strength is rushing the passer so expect UK to lean on their ground game early and often to stay out of obvious passing downs. It should be another big game for Benny Snell. The Gamecocks will have success early but as they tire in the second half the Wildcats should run wild.
Uga and Smokey aren’t the only live traveling mascots in the SEC. Carolina brings its rooster on the road. Come meet Sir Big Sir.