The following things have happened to South Carolina since the Gamecocks last played in Williams-Brice Stadium three weeks ago: The state has been hit by a 1,000-year rain event, a football game scheduled to be played in Columbia was instead moved to the state of Louisiana, and the legendary head coach that led the program for more than a decade stepped down. But, other than that, everything's going poorly for the Gamecocks this season.
That's the backdrop as South Carolina takes on Vanderbilt, with the Gamecocks as a home underdog to the Commodores. It's a game that will almost certainly decide last place in the SEC East, likely decide last place in the SEC overall and also possibly clinch the No. 14 slot in the SEC Power Poll. This not an important game by any definition of the word, because the stakes are so very small in the universe of college football. But for the teams and coaches in this game, the stakes are pretty high.
The Gamecocks will take any bit of sunshine, no matter how small, to cheer up a season that is becoming monotonously dreary. For the Commodores, though, a win would give Derek Mason the first concrete sign that his team might be rounding the corner. Two beleaguered teams fighting for nothing more than a little bit of respect. No, it might not be that important. But it might still end up being fun.
1The Beginning of the Shawn Elliott Era. The likeliest outcome of Shawn Elliott's time at the helm of South Carolina this season is that it ends with him leaving Columbia with the thanks of a grateful athletics department -- but if it's going to go further than that, it has to start here. There's almost no conceivable way that Elliott can coach his way to the permanent position without a win against Vanderbilt. Sure, he could lose to Vanderbilt and then win five straight games -- but the chances of the latter happening along with the former is exceedingly remote. And because Steve Spurrier will not be on the sideline and ultimately calling the plays, or at least approving them, almost everything about the South Carolina offense is up in the air. There's not likely to be a huge change -- others already had a voice in the calls, and Elliott largely coordinated the running game -- but nuances matter. And perhaps not all for the better; no one in college football has a better feel for the game than Spurrier, and he's gone. If South Carolina clobbers Vanderbilt, expect to see Elliott's stock go up, even though he has to do a lot more than beat the Commodores to earn the job.
2Who Says You Can't Stay Home? Before Spurrier's shocking resignation, there was already another major storyline confronting South Carolina: The historic floods ravaging the Midlands. Life is slowly starting to return to normal in the Palmetto State, and this week's home game will not be played in another city, as you might recall last week's "home" game against LSU getting shifted to Baton Rouge. That could provide an extra kick for the Gamecocks, who need whatever kind of lift they can get even against traditional lightweight Vanderbilt. And the last thing that the players needed after the gut punch that they received Monday evening was another road game masquerading as a home contest.
3A First Time for Everything. For Derek Mason, who is still winless in the SEC, this might be the best opportunity he's had for a conference victory since coming to Nashville, and it's probably the best one he's going to get for quite some time. Coming in with an S&P+ rank of 73rd, South Carolina will be the lowest-rated team in that measure that the Commodores have faced since Mason took over. (The previous low-water mark was 2014 Kentucky, which ended up at 58th in the rankings. Technically, Missouri (76) and Kentucky (77) are ranked lower this year, but Vanderbilt will almost certainly not face either of those teams on the same week that their head coach walked away. Vanderbilt, in case you're wondering, is No. 54. If Mason can't win this one, he could finish his second season with an 0-16 record against the rest of the SEC.
Jim Brown -- USA Today Sports
4Putting the No in Noffense. If you are looking for a game with a lot of points and great offensive play -- then there are other games on the television for your viewing pleasure. Both of these offenses are pretty dreadful. The Gamecocks rank 11th in the SEC in total offense, gaining 5.42 yards per snap. Vanderbilt is even worse, gaining 5.22 yards play, good for 13th in the league. However, there is a hopeful sign for the Commodores: They are, after all, playing the South Carolina defense. The Gamecocks are giving up a jaw-dropping 6.29 yards per play, the only SEC team to allow more than six yards a snap. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt has presented itself quite admirably on defense, allowing just 4.73 yards a play. That might just be enough in this game. (Source for statistics: cfbstats.com.)
5Punch It In. What magnifies the problems of both South Carolina and Vanderbilt on offense is that as bad as those underlying numbers are, the Gamecocks and the Commodores also struggle to score touchdowns when they're inside the 20-yard line. Vanderbilt ranks dead last in the SEC in red-zone conversions, scoring 60 percent of the time when the team gets down there. But it's South Carolina that trails the rest of the SEC in how often they score touchdowns inside the red zone, checking in with a paltry 35.3 percent. Vanderbilt's eight red-zone touchdowns would be the worst mark in the league if it weren't for the fact that South Carolina and Missouri both have six. #CollegeKickers, anyone? (Source for statistics: cfbstats.com.)
THREE TO WATCH
G.A. Mangus, OC, South Carolina. We don't usually put coaches in these spots, but the task of squeezing as much offense as possible out of a unit that even Steve Spurrier couldn't fix falls to Mangus, the quarterbacks coach at South Carolina. Mangus will be the primary play caller, and if he can find some new tricks or wrinkles to throw at the Commodores, he will look like a genius. If he can't, this game could get ugly for South Carolina.
Trent Sherfield, WR, Vanderbilt. If you haven't been paying much attention to Vanderbilt -- and, really, why would you? -- you probably aren't aware that they have a pretty good receiver. Sherfield has 34 catches for 465 yards and two touchdowns so far this season. Sherfield might not get the 1,000-yard season he's on pace for, in part because you can only have 240 receiving yards against Austin Peay once a season, but he has been the Commodores' most prolific receiver in four of their five games this year. Given South Carolina's terrible defense, he might be able to have a big game.
Jim Brown -- USA Today Sports
Brandon Wilds, RB, South Carolina. The South Carolina running back is set to play, according to Elliott, for the first time since the Georgia game. That might help re-energize the moribund South Carolina rushing attack, which has carried the ball 54 times for 186 yards over the last two games, an average of 3.4 yards per attempt. Wilds' 5.2-yard average is tops among Gamecocks running backs who have carried the ball more than once.
No outcome to this game would surprise me. I've said a couple of times this week that South Carolina would either win or lose by 40 points after the week that the Gamecocks have had -- and while that was hyperbole, it does capture the fundamental unpredictability of the game. I still think that Vanderbilt wins this game more times than not on a neutral field. But it's not a neutral field, and this isn't more times than not. Gamecocks win -- narrowly. South Carolina 22, Vanderbilt 21