This is going to be a slightly abbreviated edition of Unsolicited Advice, mainly because most of the keys to beating South Carolina revolve around our Tenets of the Faith (run the ball, stop the run, don't turn the ball over).
One of the consistent themes of Steve Spurrier's tenure at South Carolina has been soft line play on both sides of the ball. To this point in the season, I haven't been given much reason to think that's changed. On defense, they're too undersized to match up against teams with a physical running game. They seem better suited to give Florida a hard time than Bama. On offense, they have good size on the OL, and seemed to have improved on their ability to open up running lanes in the early going, leading to some WAY too early comparisons of Marcus Lattimore to Herschel Walker (largely on the strength of a 180+ yard day against a Georgia defense that turned out to be awful). However, once the Gamecock OL ran up against a defensive line with a pulse at Auburn, it look like the same old story. Lattimore may as well have been Mike Davis or any of the other SC running backs who've floundered in the backfield over the past half decade.
If the Tide can take advantage of those two obvious matchup problems, as well as avoiding turnovers that lead to cheap points, there's no reason this shouldn't be a runaway Bama victory. In fact, they rode the same recipe to a hard-fought victory over the Gamecocks last time, even in spite of sloppy, self-destructive quarterback play. If a one-dimensional Arkansas offense with Ryan Mallett can't beat Bama at home, I don't see Stephen Garcia pulling it off in Columbia.
Anyway, here's what else Bama needs to do to win...
1. The team must maintain a sharp mental focus. This comes before all else because this has the potential to be a serious trap game, going on the road after back-to-back games against Top 10 opponents to face a very capable opponent coming off a bye week. Despite the overwhelming advantages I think Bama has in the areas of rushing and rush defense, if they don't show up and execute the way they have the last game and a half, this will be a much tougher game than it should be. Maybe even a loss. If they're lackadaisical and just LET the SC offensive line blow them off the ball, Lattimore becomes a major threat in the second level against the spotty tackling of some of Bama's defensive backs (although it was much improved against Florida). Alabama needs to let their strengths be their strengths so they can worry about defending their weaknesses, which Spurrier has no doubt drawn up a good gameplan to target over the past 2 weeks.
It's also worth noting that Alabama's worst defensive showings of the season have come on the road. Even beyond the Arkansas game, Duke's offense was much more problematic than it should have been. And Williams-Brice Stadium is an underrated venue. The fans there really get up for big games and create a crazy environment at kickoff. The young defense didn't respond especially well in a similar environment in Fayetteville.
All that said, I like where the team's head seems to be at right now. They dispatched Florida in rather business-like fashion without a big emotional release like we saw in the 09 SEC title game. That leads me to believe there won't be a let-down this weekend. I'm also optimistic that the defense learned a lot of lessons on how to play on the road in the SEC against Arkansas.
2. The Defensive Backs must win one-on-one matchups with South Carolina's wide receivers. Stephen Garcia doesn't scare me. But, boy, Tori Gurley and Alshon Jeffery sure do. They're so big and athletic, they can make a quarterback better than he is. In particular, Jeffery is a matchup nightmare and looks ready to push AJ Green and Julio Jones for the title of Best Receiver in the SEC. Through five games, he has 27 catches for 498 yards and 2 TDs, and he very nearly tied the Auburn game by himself, despite Spurrier's boneheaded QB swap. No doubt, both he and the head ball coach are salivating at the thought of taking shots at Bama's young defensive backs. And they will. Whether it's the sensible thing to do or not, Garcia will be throwing it up to Jeffery early and often.
Think back to last year's game, when Spurrier identified corner Marquis Johnson as the weak link in the secondary and at one point had Garcia throw the same fade pass into the endzone to Jeffery against Johnson on 3 straight plays. Fortunately, Johnson rose to the occasion and denied Jeffery the ball every time. But Johnson, despite his somewhat erratic play over the years, was a senior. This time around, Spurrier will have Garcia and Jeffery taking aim at a sophomore, a freshman, and a JUCO transfer.
Between Dre Kirkpatrick, Demarcus Milliner, and DeQuan Menzie, it's difficult to say who's the weak link amongst the top 3 Bama corners. They've all had moments where they've looked like future NFL draft picks, but then they've all had moments where they've looked like 2nd Team All-Sun Belt picks. With 2 weeks to scheme, I'm sure Spurrier has plays for all of them. Whoever lines up across from Jeffery will have to be on their A+ game that down.
Dre, that means no getting run over on bump and run coverage or falling down on a double move.
Demarcus, that means no more running wrong play.
3. The Defense must not allow South Carolina to score TDs in the redzone. Stay with me here. I know this sounds like an all-time "duh" bit of advice. You always want to keep them out of the endzone. But it's of particular significance against SC. For one thing, the Gamecocks are just really good at cashing in TDs when they get in the redzone. They currently score on 94% of their redzone possessions, including 13 touchdowns. When you've got 7 foot tall receivers, you increase the size of the redzone vertically, and suddenly you're a lot more efficient down there.
However, while 13 redzone TDs are impressive, the Gamecocks only have 15 total offensive TDs. To save you the remedial math, they've only scored 2 (!!!) TDs from outside the redzone. And one of those was a 22 yard scramble by Garcia, barely beyond that threshold. Keep in mind, this includes games against woefully undermanned defenses like Southern Miss and Furman. And Georgia. Thus far, the Gamecocks have shown an inability to threaten teams down the field with explosive scoring plays. It's my belief that if you can keep South Carolina out of the endzone from inside the 20, there's a good chance they're not going to get in the endzone at all.
Through 5 games, Bama ranks 3rd nationally in redzone defense, allowing opponents to score only 57% of the time. Bama has also been able to force quite a few turnovers inside the 20. If that holds up on Saturday, it's going to be a long one for the Gamecocks.
4. The Defense must get off the field on 3rd down. The Bama defense currently sits at 3rd in the country in third down percentage at 26.09%, but it sure hasn't felt that good while I've been watching the game, especially last week when the Tide couldn't get Florida off the field in the 3rd quarter. Now they square off against a South Carolina offense that converts 3rd downs at a rate of 55.32% (also good for 3rd in the country). So which side is going to give?
One of the reasons South Carolina is so good on 3rd down is that Garcia is an efficient passer on short and intermediate timing routes. The emergence of Lattimore early in the season has allowed him to operate in more 3rd and short/manageable situations. That's in his wheelhouse. He struggles throwing deeper passes (likely one of the reasons the SC offense is unable to score from outside the 20) and in situations where he has to drop back and read the defense, aka "3rd and long."
So the objective for Bama's defense will be to force as many of those as possible. One of the ways they can do that is by generating sacks or hurried incompletions on 1st and 2nd down. Through 4 games, the Gamecock OL has allowed 12 sacks. There WILL be opportunities for pressure there, and the Bama pass rush made a big leap forward last week with the full-time return of a healthy Courtney Upshaw and Marcell Dareus. But the thing they really need to improve on is finishing sacks. In the past two games, there were numerous plays when a defender had the QB dead to rights in the backfield but failed to complete the tackle or just plain whiffed. That can't happen this week because Garcia is a legitimate running threat, unlike Mallett and Brantley. Negative offensive plays can turn into 1st downs in a flash.
Last week, I deviated from my preseason projection of 31-14 and called for a much closer, 27-20 win over Florida, only to see the Gators take an even worse beating than I imagined in August. This week, I'm sticking with my No Win Scenario pick of a 27-13 Tide win. There's just going to be too much Ingram and too much Richardson for the Gamecocks to handle. Jeffery will put up some numbers, maybe even a TD, to make it interesting early, but ultimately the Tide wears out the Gamecock defense and puts it out of reach late.