As Thursday quickly approaches, not only is the college football season ready to officially kick off, but the South Carolina Gamecocks and the Vanderbilt Commodores are set to square off with the SEC Eastern Division lead on the line.
Both teams are hoping to build off of last season's success and take the next step for their respective programs. For the Gamecocks, there are hopes for their first-ever SEC championship. For the Commodores, they are trying to reach just their third bowl game in 30 years.
If this game was in Columbia, I would have it as a rout. However, there are several things that intrigue me about this game. The Commodores were very good at home last season. They were 5-2 in Nashville last season.
Moreover, their only two losses at home last season were against nationally ranked Georgia and Arkansas. Both games were decided on the last play.
South Carolina improved dramatically away from William-Brice Stadium last season (5-1). However, they were an anemic 6-13 away from William-Brice Stadium in the three previous seasons.
The game being in Nashville gives Vanderbilt a fighting chance.The Commodores also have a vastly underrated offense returning. Quarterback Jordan Rogers had 1,960 total yards last season, despite not becoming the starter until Week 7.
Vanderbilt also has two solid running backs in Zac Stacy, who carried it 201 times for 1,193 yards, which broke the school single-season record while also adding 14 touchdowns.
The Commodores also have Warren Norman returning this season. Warren set the SEC freshmen record for all-purpose yards with 1,941 in 2009 but was forced to redshirt the 2011 season because of a knee injury.
Those might be the names people are focusing on, but don't forget Jordan Matthews. Matthews might be the most underrated SEC player coming into the 2012 season. When Rogers took over as quarterback, Matthews excelled. He went on a tear that included Matthews becoming the first Vanderbilt wide receiver in school history to record three straight 100-yard performances.
Last season, the Vanderbilt defense was the program's strength. They forced 29 turnovers. To put that in perspective, that number is only one fewer than the LSU defense and nine more than the Alabama defense. However, the Commodores will be without several key contributors, including All-American Casey Hayward.
In other words, there is a lot of talent in Nashville, but there is a reason South Carolina has their first top-10 preseason ranking in school history.
Let me make this clear—there will never be another Hershel Walker. However, Gamecock running back Marcus Lattimore is the closest we have ever had. He is the rare running back that can carry the football 40 times and get stronger with each carry.
The story of this game, in my opinion, is how many carries Lattimore will receive. He was on his way to becoming a Heisman trophy finalist until he tore his ACL in Week 7 last year.
Sophomore running back Brandon Wilds is good, but there is only one Lattimore in college football. South Carolina must keep Lattimore under 25 carries this game and closer to 20.
Then there is Connor Shaw. Shaw is an athletic and capable quarterback. Despite only having eight starts last season, Shaw had 1,973 total yards and 20 total touchdowns. However, they lose stud wide receiver Alshon Jeffery. Shaw has some talented receivers returning, but they have all been inconsistent.
How productive Shaw will be is a question mark. However, the biggest question mark coming into the 2012 season is the Gamecocks defense. South Carolina's defense was one of the best in the nation. With that said, they have lost several key defensive players.
The departure of Melvin Ingram and their top three corners from last year in Stephon Gilmore, Marty Markett and C.C. Whitlock could mean a steep decline. Add in the departure of the defensive coordinator, and only time will tell if they can continue to play at a high level.
I look for Steve Spurrier to take a conservative approach. He is fully aware that the Gamecocks are the better team. However, with the game being in Nashville, just a couple of turnovers could leave South Carolina licking their wounds in defeat.
Vandy will have early success on offense, but the Gamecocks' running game will keep them off the field.
Score: South Carolina 24 Vanderbilt 20
Stat of the Game: Marcus Lattimore 22 carries, 113 yards and two touchdowns.