It's been quite an early season thus far for the Gamecocks.
Carolina fans have seen defensive struggles, offensive shootouts, and a lopsided victory. However words cannot describe how much this upcoming Thursday night game means to the South Carolina program. Not only will it be a bid for some respect for Carolina, but it will be the only game on the national stage thanks to the Thursday night lights.
For the first time this season, the Gamecocks will see an elite, top five team stroll into Columbia on Thursday in front of a national audience. A national audience that Steve Spurrier has instrumentally used to give his Carolina program exposure to recruits around the nation.
Such a recruit was impressive prospect Tori Gurley, who once sat down on a Thursday night to watch Carolina take on a top 10 Kentucky team. After an exciting victory, Gurley rushed to his phone to call his recruiters to tell them of his commitment to Carolina. Now an impressive receiver for the Gamecocks, Gurley, like coach Spurrier, knows how big of an impression a program can make when they're the only game on television.
Now everyone knows that this is an Ole Miss team that features an All-American quarterback in Jevan Snead, a scary defensive end in Greg Hardy, and a coach that has suited his team to their strengths in Houston Nutt. Everyone seems to remember their huge upset of Florida last year and the tear they went on at the end of the season.
What everyone seems to have forgotten is that the Rebels were beaten by Carolina in Oxford last year with a quarterback that is currently a catcher for Alabama.
Now with a presumably ready and able dual threat quarterback like Garcia at the helm with what has proven to be an above average supporting cast around him, the Gamecocks will attempt to jump on the untested Rebels in their SEC opener.
The key for Carolina will be the lines on both sides of the ball. If Carolina is able to get a push on the defensive front of Ole Miss, it could make for a big day for the Gamecock stable of tailbacks. If the line is able to protect Garcia and allow him to break out of the pocket and make plays, the offense could work well against the pass rush oriented Rebel defense. If Garcia is able to escape the pocket and get time on a consistent basis, look for huge days from Tori Gurley and Weslye Saunders.
The big question for me in this game will be the defense. Several players will have to step up in this game against a high powered SEC offense orchestrated by one of the best quarterbacks in college football. Ladi Ajiboye will have to be sharp in his return from a three game suspension if Carolina is going to get any push in the interior D-Line.
If redshirt senior Nathan Pepper is able to play, the defensive line gets a huge boost. However, if Pep isn't able to go or is only available in certain scenarios, Travian Robertson and Ladi Ajiboye will have to be at their best if Carolina is going to make Jevan Snead work.
While the interior line could be a bit of a concern, I look for the ends of Carolina to have a big day hassling Snead. Cliff Matthews, Clifton Geathers, and Eric Norwood among others should be flying off of the edge on Thursday. If Carolina is able to cause some turnovers because of the pass rush, it could lead to a long day for the Ole Miss offense.
Replacements for injured linebacker Rodney Paulk such as Shaq Wilson and Josh Dickerson will have to be disciplined in front of the home crowd if Norwood is going to be able to roam and wreak havoc in the backfield.
The secondary will have to show knowledge of the game beyond their years if they're going to keep the team within striking distance even with safety Darian Stewart expected to play. Wet behind the ears defensive backs such as corner Stephon Gilmore and safeties Antonio Allen and Devonte Holloman will have to be prepared to be tested early and often.
If there is a glaring showing of youth in the secondary Thursday, Carolina loses. Simple as that.
With a big crowd on Thursday and a spruced up stadium that is now adorned by Carolina records and tradition, the Gamecocks look to blaze a new path in the SEC East with a big win against a top five SEC opponent. Such a win would be the first of the Spurrier era. Now wouldn't that be a way to usher in a new attitude of Carolina football?