Almost since the moment of Marcus Lattimore's season-ending injury against Mississippi State, pundits have been deeming South Carolina dead in the water. Every mentioning of their Top 10 ranking on ESPN is followed by "though that could change with Marcus Lattimore out," and even South Carolina partisans are worried about their team sans its workhorse running back.
It doesn't help that South Carolina's offense is, to put it quite kindly, mediocre. Whether or not you buy the notion that the loss of Stephen Garcia was a big deal, the offense has scored 14 points against each of the competent teams they've faced since Garcia's dismissal. Against Tennessee, the Gamecocks managed just 318 yards.
But of that yardage, 231 came on the ground and 137 came from Lattimore's replacement: Brandon Wilds. Which raises the interesting question of how much Lattimore mattered -- and whether his absence will make a difference in the second-most important SEC game of the weekend.
Let's take care of the obvious answer off the top: Of course, losing Lattimore is going to be a huge deal for South Carolina, if for no other reason than the emotional toll that losing your best remaining player will have on any team. But Wilds might not be that bad a replacement when it comes to the actual game on the field.
To try to measure Lattimore's impact on the game, I did what any good sports blogger does: I created a statistic. Granted, someone else might have created the same statistic for some other purpose. (I find it hard to believe that Bill Connelly hasn't at least thought of any possible stat you could use, so if he's already used this one, just go with whatever Bill calls it.) But I'm going to go the usual route and borrow from ERA+ to call it RA+ -- essentially, an adjusted rushing average that's determined not by the rusher's average yardage per carry, but by that yardage per carry as compared to what's generally allowed by a given team.
In this case, 100 is an average that's on par with what the defense in question generally gives up. I should point out here that this stat follows our general practice at TSK of excising games against FCS opponents to try to avoid skewing the results.
There are a few things to note about Marcus Lattimore. First of all, his game against Georgia was really, really good. That's sort of expected when someone rushes for 176 years. But it came against a great rushing defense, which makes it a bit more impressive.
Second, those who thought that his production kind of fell off after the Navy game were onto something. Whether that was due to overuse, some kind of funk, or just defenses learning how to stop Lattimore is open for debate. But you can't argue that Lattimore was continuing to bang his way through opposing defenses after the Navy game the way he was before that contest -- because he pretty clearly wasn't.
And his RA+ when that great Georgia game is taken out is only slightly better than average. Part of that is due to the slump -- Lattimore was also very good against East Carolina and Navy -- but Lattimore would have been coming into the Tennessee and Arkansas games on that slump. And Wilds' performance against the Vols actually stacks up pretty favorably with Lattimore's post-Navy numbers.
In fact, Wilds' 111 was greater than Lattimore's season average minus Georgia and any game for the starter after the Navy game. Now, the caveats are all there: This was one game against a subpar rushing defense, which is important even if you're talking about an adjusted number. If this was Wilds' version of the Georgia game, for example, it would be nothing more than proof that Wilds' ceiling is far lower than Lattimore's. But if it's what South Carolina can expect to come from Wilds in future games, and Arkansas in particular, then the fact that Lattimore is out might not make that big a difference.
And it's not like Arkansas' run defense is a titan -- the Hogs are 10th in the SEC against the run in yards per game and yards per carry. Whether South Carolina can keep up with the Arkansas offense and its explosive attack could still make it hard for the Gamecocks to pull out the win. But if Brandon Wilds plays as well as he did at Tennessee, the running back won't be the one South Carolina fans can blame if they end up on the losing end.