Records Last Year: South Carolina (3-9, 1-7 SEC); Vanderbilt (4-8, 2-6)
Game Time: Thursday, September 1, 8 p.m. ET
Odds: South Carolina (-4), -110 (SCAR Moneyline), -130 (Vandy Moneyline), 46.5 (O/U)
South Carolina starts off the season with yet another Thursday night tilt. This time the Gamecocks and new head coach Will Muschamp travel to Nashville to take on Derek Mason and the Commodores, in what many may view as a battle to not finish last in the East.
Here are three things to look for:
Which QB will stand out?
Since taking over at Vanderbilt, Mason has been known for his revolving door at quarterback. Mason has gone from Patton Robinette to Stephen Rivers to Johnny McCrary to Wade Freebeck to McCrary again and not to Kyle Shurmur. Shurmur, the son of Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Pat, has the pedigree, on paper, that should spell success.
Unfortunately, this is the SEC and things aren’t that simple. Shurmur started five of the last six games of 2015 and in his last three posted a 5:3 touchdown to interception ratio, making him the most viable of the Commodore signal-callers.
Mason opened up the competition in the spring, but the feeling was the job was always Shurmur’s to lose. After a summer of full first-team reps, Shurmur knows that Vandy goes as far as he takes him. He has the build (6’4”, 233) and the strong arm to compete at a high-level in 2016. A start versus a porous South Carolina defense should give an indicator on how the ‘Dores starter season wil go.
While, we’ve known that Shurmur would be the starter there’s been radio silence from Columbia in regards to who will be their starter Thursday night. Senior and incumbent Perry Orth had a fairly competitive 2015 season throwing for just under 2,000 with 12 touchdowns and 9 interceptions.
A broken collarbone kept Orth out for most of the spring and allowed true freshman Brandon McIlwain an opportunity at the job. McIlwain looked impressive in the spring game (19-for-26, 169 yards) and grew into the favorite to win the job after being named a co-starter with Orth heading into fall camp.
True freshman Jake Bentley, son of running backs coach Bobby Bentley, entered the fold during the summer after graduating early from Opelika High in Alabama. McIlwain brings a dual-threat approach to the position, while Orth brings his experience and underrated athleticism and Bentley is a prototypical drop back passer. Whoever earns the starting nod will need to show their leadership with a limited amount of offensive talent at their disposal.
Vandy Defense vs South Carolina Offense
Since Derek Mason took over the play-calling responsibilities the defense for Vanderbilt has been one of the most stout in the SEC and nation. Under Mason’s reign in 2015, Vanderbilt went from giving up 33.3 ppg to 21.0 ppg. Mason isn’t alone in the teams improvement. Juniors Zach Cunningham, Nigel Bowden, and Oren Burks form what may very well be the top linebacking group in the conference.
Cunningham is the best player in the SEC that you’ve never heard of.
Cunningham led the ‘Dores in tackling with 103 (12 for a loss) in 2015 and is only expected to improve. Burks moves closer to the line of scrimmage to the rover position after finishing third in tackles and leading the team in interceptions (3) a year ago. Bowden missed 10 games in 2015, recovering from concussion symptoms, but was an All-SEC freshman first-teamer in 2014, along with the teams leading tackler.
South Carolina outside of figuring out their quarterback quandary has several other issues. The loss of Pharoah Cooper to the NFL leaves the Gamecocks with limited playmakers on the perimeter. Sophomore wide-out Deebo Samuel returns as the leading receiver after hauling in 12 balls for 161 yards, but after him there’s not much.
Junior running back David Williams has the talent to be a solid rusher for the team, though he will be running behind three new starters on the offensive line. Quarterback turned receiver Lorenzo Nunez should see time in a wildcat package to help out with the rushing attack.
Ralph Webb starts his campaign to Vandy career rushing mark
Mason’s tenure has offered few bright spots, but none have been brighter than the junior from Gainesville, FL. Webb has rushed for over 2,000 yards in his Commodore career and is 1,085 yards from being the school’s all-time leading rusher. Shurmur’s improvement is important to Vandy taking the next step, but they aren’t competitive without a healthy Webb in the backfield.
So, what happens?
This game has several meanings of importance. One, it’s a conference game, therefore the winner gets the early edge in the East, though no one expects either of these teams to be a serious threat to get to Atlanta. Two, both head coaches could get use some positive juju heading into 2016. For Muschamp, he’s out to prove that he can be a successful head coach after bombing out at Florida—not thanks to the lack of a steady quarterback --- and having a less than impressive stint at Auburn last year.
For Mason, he’s in Year 3 and has to prove that he is the man for the job, after James Franklin took the program to three straight bowl appearance prior to bolting for Penn State. Mason may finally have the stability and hopefully the quarterback to compete this year.
I know that I’m going out on a limb here, but I’ve felt all summer that Vanderbilt had a chance to blow the doors off of South Carolina in the opener. Mason has his defense where they need to be and Andy Ludwig needs Shurmur to allow the offense to not beat themselves. Muschamp will need to see quick improvement from a defense that has been one of the worst in the league the past two seasons. If not, it could be a long night in Nashville for Cocky.
Prediction: Vanderbilt 27, South Carolina 10