On Saturday, November 6, the 19th ranked Arkansas Razorbacks will travel to Columbia to face-off against the 17th ranked South Carolina Gamecocks.
A week ago, Carolina fans saw this as possibly the game where USC could clinch their first bid to the SEC Championship Game. Thanks to the Florida Gators (...and the Georgia Bulldogs) the SEC East looks like it will still be decided November 13th when USC travels to Gainesville for a battle in the Swamp.
At this point, only two teams mathematically have a shot at playing for the SEC Championship from the SEC East: South Carolina or Florida.
Both teams have one game before they face-off: South Carolina hosts Arkansas, while Florida's on the road at Vanderbilt.
Here are the possible scenarios:
USC and Florida both win, leaving their conference records at 5-2 and 4-3 respectively, winner of USC–UF take all.
USC and Florida both lose, leaving their conference records at 4-3 and 3-4 respectively, winner of USC–UF take all.
USC loses and Florida wins, leaving both their conference records at 4-3, again winner of USC–UF take all.
USC wins and Florida loses, leaving their conference records at 5-2 and 3-4, USC wins the SEC East even with a loss to Florida.
Anyway you slice it, we will know by roughly 4:00 PM EST Saturday, when the Florida–Vanderbilt game concludes.
Which one will happen? Great question.
I think most "experts" will pick the USC losing and Florida winning scenario, given Carolina's pass defense issues facing one of the SEC's best passing offenses, and Florida facing lowly Vanderbilt.
I think the first scenario with both teams winning is most likely. Vanderbilt hasn't been very competitive this year at all, and Florida showed glimpses of improved performance against Georgia.
Like most Carolina fans, I would love to have the SEC East in the bag before traveling to Florida. Thus, I caution fans to not overlook the Commodores.
I know it's hard, but just try. Here, I'll help by giving you a few reasons to believe.
First, Florida is coming off a huge rivalry win in overtime over Georgia. We all have seen this year where a team coming off a big win goes on the road and loses.
Just to a name a few: Alabama thrashes Florida, loses to USC; USC dominates Alabama, loses to Kentucky; Clemson beats Georgia Tech for the first time in four games, loses to BC.
We all know anything can happen.
Second, I have a hard time viewing Florida's performance over Georgia as anything more than a fluke, so to speak.
Let's be honest. Florida's back was against the wall, in a rivalry game no less. Sure you want to win every game you play, but you really want to win them over your rival.
Will that same Gator squad show up against Vanderbilt that showed up for Georgia, or will it be the Gator squad that played Mississippi State? Can the Gators stay focused on the Commodores, and not look ahead to the battle with Carolina?
Carolina has the advantage here, as they will know before the kickoff of the Arkansas game, what's at stake.
Third, a lot of the success Florida had against Georgia was due to forcing four Bulldog turnovers.
Vanderbilt currently has surrendered 11 turnovers on the year, good enough for second fewest in the SEC behind Alabama.
Florida leads the league in interceptions defensively with 16, but is second from last in forced fumbles with four.
Vanderbilt doesn't throw the ball often, having only attempted 192 passes this year, the third least total in the SEC.
As long as the Commodores don't turn it over the few times they do throw, Florida's ability to force turnovers and give their offense a short field should not be a factor.
Florida is also one of the most heavily penalized teams in the SEC. The Gators average about eight penalties a game for an average of 54 yards negated in the field position battle.
It's tough to get a good read on how Florida performs on the road this year, as they've only played two road games, but judging by their last road game (31-6 Alabama) the Gators are better at home.
Vanderbilt has been a more competitive team at home this year, keeping it close against the likes of South Carolina and Northwestern, while being dominated on the road against Georgia, Arkansas, and Connecticut.
The key for Vanderbilt will be to limit the turnovers and find some kind of offense, particularly on the ground.
The Commodores need a big game from RB Warren Norman and Zac Stacy, and QB Larry Smith. The same formula worked for Mississippi State.
The Vanderbilt defense has to limit the big play. Whenever Florida had to start on their side of the 50 yard line against Georgia, they needed a big play to score.
If Vanderbilt can limit their turnovers and big plays from the Gators, they can contain the Florida offense and win this game.
Now, as a little extra, here are a few key facets of the South Carolina–Arkansas game that will determine it's outcome:
3rd–Down: South Carolina boasts the SEC's best third down offense, Arkansas has the SEC's best third down defense. Something has to give in this game.
The Redzone: Arkansas scores 93 percent of the time when they get the ball inside their opponent’s 20 yard line, good enough for best in the SEC. USC converts 82 percent of their red zone chances into points, good enough for seventh in the SEC.
The key here is redzone defense. Arkansas allows a score 91 percent of the time, and it is a TD 70 percent of the time. USC's defense only allows a score 69 percent of the time, while holding their opponent to a field goal 45 percent of the time.
Clock control: USC’s game plan has to revolve around keeping QB Ryan Mallett and the Razorback offense off the field, and keeping the ball in the hands of RB Marcus Lattimore.
To do this, they must have improved play from their defensive secondary and continued excellent play from the defensive line by pressuring Mallett into bad decisions. It can be done, look at the Alabama game for reference as Mallett’s two costly interceptions at the end of the game were the difference.
The Matchups: South Carolina gets the advantage in all but one category, Arkansas' pass offense against USC’s pass defense. Despite the blown coverages and missed assignments by the Gamecock secondary, South Carolina leads the league in sacks.
Can the Gamecock secondary cover the Arkansas receivers, without starting CB Chris Culliver, long enough for the defensive front four to put pressure on Mallett?
To the Gamecocks advantage, Arkansas will be without leading receiver Greg Childs, who is out for the season with a patella tendon injury. The Hogs could also miss their second leading receiver Joe Adams if he doesn't recover from an ankle injury.
Surprisingly, South Carolina’s pass offense is actually more efficient than the Arkansas pass attack. QB Stephen Garcia’s completion percentage and yards per completion stats are better than Arkansas’. In the run game department, USC has the edge both offensively and defensively.
When the Gamecocks are on offense, they must limit the mistakes and turnovers. In Carolina’s two losses they've turned the ball over a total of eight times (four per game), while they have seven turnovers spread over their six wins (approximately one per game).
Secondly, QB Stephen Garcia, WR Alshon Jeffery, RB Marcus Lattimore, and the offensive line’s play will be critical. Carolina must sustain long drives that eat up a lot of clock and limit the Razorback’s scoring chances.
I think this one will be very close and the team with the ball last wins it.
Gamecocks 35, Razorbacks 31
Again, the importance of the South Carolina–Arkansas game towards the SEC East race rests with what Vanderbilt is able to do against Florida earlier in the day.
As for its importance to the Gamecock's season, it's pivotal to the hopes of a 10 win season, something all Carolina fans are hoping for.
It's also been reported this week that a goal set by the team captains and Coach Spurrier before the season was to be undefeated at home this year. If Carolina beats the Hogs, they're just a win over Troy away from accomplishing that feat.
I'll go ahead and join Gamecock Nation with a..."Go 'Dores and Go 'Cocks! (and go NC State Wolfpack!)"