Steve Spurrier, love him or hate him, is an honest guy.
And, honestly, before the season started, he would have preferred not to make the trip to Baton Rouge to take on LSU in a primetime SEC showdown.
“If I made the schedule,” Spurrier told reporters at SEC Media Days in July, “Georgia would be playing LSU, and we’d be playing Ole Miss.”
Jokes aside, Spurrier and the No. 3 Gamecocks (6-0) couldn’t have expected prior to the season to enter Saturday’s 7 p.m. matchup in Death Valley facing a team as vulnerable and ineffectual as the No. 9 Tigers (5-1) have proven to be in 2012.
In fact, if Spurrier were given the choice, he probably couldn’t have picked a better time to play against LSU, after the Tigers’ 14-6 loss against Florida on Saturday revealed all the weaknesses a weak pre-conference schedule kept secret at LSU – weaknesses that South Carolina’s strengths look perfectly matched against.
First and foremost is LSU’s leaky offensive line, which has surrendered 15 sacks on the season – good for 10th place in the SEC. That line will do its best to contain a South Carolina pass rush that leads the SEC and ranks fourth in the country with 4.17 sacks per game.
Gamecock defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton rival LSU’s own Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo as the nation’s best defensive end pairing.
Then there are the Tigers’ red zone woes. LSU has made 27 trips inside the opponents’ 20 yard line in 2012 – second in the SEC only to Tennessee – but has come away empty-handed six times. Only Arkansas (eight scoreless trips) has been worse in that category. Meanwhile, South Carolina’s red zone defense has permitted just four touchdowns in 14 trips, the second-best rate in the conference. (On a semi-related note, LSU’s red zone defense is worst in the league: the Tigers are the only SEC team without a stop inside their own 20 all season.)
But while the differences between the Tigers’ and Gamecocks’ strengths and weaknesses stand clear, perhaps even more concerning for LSU are some similarities South Carolina has to the Florida Gator squad that just knocked LSU off its 18-game regular season winning streak.
Like Florida, South Carolina is a run-first, ball-control team. Led by Heisman candidate Marcus Lattimore, the Gamecocks have shed Spurrier of his Fun N’ Gun identity in favor of a hard-nosed, “three yards and a cloud of dust” style of offense that so often finds success in the SEC. Also like the Gators, South Carolina manages to be quite efficient when they do throw the ball. Quarterback Connor Shaw is the SEC’s most efficient quarterback, completing over 75 percent of his passes.
But where the Gamecocks diverge from Florida in their similarities most is on defense. They’re much, much better.
Defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward has helped the Gamecocks emerge as an elite unit. We’ve already discussed their pass rush, but South Carolina is just as good against the run, allowing only 83.83 yards per game on the ground. The combination of their pass rush and run stop has accounted for just 10.5 points per game allowed, which ranks fourth nationally.
Spurrier will look at what happened in his former stomping grounds on Saturday and realize that Will Muschamp and the Gators basically handed him the game plan for how to beat LSU: load the box against the run, pound the defense, control the clock, and be patient. That said, Spurrier isn’t expecting to just walk into Baton Rouge and pick up a win. He knows how tough it is to get out of Death Valley alive, a lesson he learned well fifteen years ago when his Gators lost 28-21 to the No. 14 Tigers.
“They'll be ready for us,” Spurrier said. “They’re ready for everybody.”
But the Gamecocks, too, will be ready. Coming off a 35-7 win over Georgia in which they won through running the ball and controlling the clock, the game plan will be very simple.
Do it again.