The South Carolina Gamecocks are favored by six-and-a-half points against Mississippi State on Saturday night. It is the first home SEC Game for the Gamecocks this season and Williams-Brice Stadium is, once again, sold out. The team will look to capitalize on the atmosphere that Mississippi State head coach, Zach Arnett, called “one of the most energetic…atmospheres in all of college football” in his press conference on Tuesday. Coming off a hard fought loss at Georgia, South Carolina coaches and players still have plenty of confidence moving forward.
Shuffling Up Front
The Gamecocks found a left tackle in freshman Tree Babalade on Saturday in Athens. It is likely that fellow freshman, Trovon Baugh will get significant time at guard this week and continue to push for a starting spot. Look for Baugh to achieve this goal before the end of the season. Playing the talented freshmen is allowing South Carolina to gain some confidence in improving on the offensive line. Babalade gave up no sacks in his first start. The Gamecock’s rushing attack may be able to make some strides under this new look O-line. Carolina’s run game is ranked 128 out of 130 Division I teams. So, it really has nowhere to go but up.
Similarly, Mississippi State is continuing to shuffle offensive linemen. The Bulldogs transitioned from an air raid offense in 2022 to a more balanced attack that features the run game in 2023. Starting running back Jo’Quavious Marks has gotten 51 carries over three games. He is averaging 6.4 yards per carry. In a blowout loss against LSU last week, Marks had only 8 carries but gained 75 yards with the help of a 52-yard run. With the continued rotation on the offensive line and the inability to settle on the best five players up front, State is vulnerable to opposing defensive lines.
On the Other Side…
The Gamecocks defensive line has not lived up to their potential thus far. However, a monster game from TJ Sanders in Week 3 looks to jump-start the entire group. Carolina is also poised to get transfer Jatius Geer into game action for the first time this season. If the Gamecocks can get similar production from Sanders and Geer and Tyreek Johnson come back from injury, the entire defensive front will be set up to have a breakout game.
Mississippi State’s defensive line has also been underwhelming this year. Their leading tackler on the defensive front is De’Monte Russell, who has 14 total tackles over three games. The Bulldogs defensive linemen as a group only account for two of the teams’ six total sacks. The emerging Gamecocks offensive line has an opportunity to protect Spencer Rattler at a high level against this group. Additionally, fans could see the Gamecocks rushing attack eclipse the century mark for the first time against Power 5 opponents this season. Rushing for over 100 yards would go a long way toward helping the favored Gamecocks find victory.
Passing Through Three Weeks
The dynamic duo for the Gamecocks this year has been Rattler and Xavier Legette. Leading the team with 22 catches for 367 yards and a touchdown, Legette has proven to able to get open against essentially any defender. O’Mega Blake looks to be a factor on the outside with Eddie Lewis and Luke Doty competing for time in the slot. Ahmarean Brown could be back from injury this week as well. However, Ratter’s accuracy and confidence in the system are the major on-field contributors to the Gamecocks being favored. In his press conference on Wednesday, Dowell Loggains described Rattler as “on a mission” in terms of understanding protections and coverages. He also said that Rattler is “fearless in the pocket.”
The Mississippi State secondary has struggled at times this season. In two Power 5 matchups, they allowed Tetairoa McMillan, of Arizona, to catch eight balls for 161 yards and a touchdown. Then, last week against LSU, top wideout Malik Nabers went for a whopping 13 catches, 239 yards, and two touchdowns. Nabers’ fine-tuned mechanics and sheer athleticism coupled with Jayden Daniels‘ pinpoint accuracy allowed the numbers to stack up.
Rattler and Legette Can Have a Big Day
Rattler and Daniels have had very comparable careers. When it comes to accuracy, the two quarterbacks are within two percentage points of one another. It is notable that Daniels set a record by completing over 88% of his passes against Mississippi State. A comeback effort in the fourth quarter against Georgia significantly affected Rattler’s season completion percentage.
No one expects a receiver to catch double-digit passes for almost 300 yards for a second consecutive week. However, the connection between Rattler and Legette should have plenty of opportunities. As the icing on the cake, the State secondary is still trying to find its best lineup at corner. Senior safety, Shawn Preston Jr., who already has 16 tackles, a forced fumble, and an interception will be sitting out the first half due to a targeting penalty against LSU in Week 3. Rattler and company can start fast once again and look to put some distance between themselves and the Bulldogs in the early going.
The Wright Moves
After listening to Mississippi State talking heads over the course of the week, it seems that the student section in Starkville isn’t the only group calling for more playing time for quarterback Mike Wright. The starter, Will Rogers, is one of the most decorated quarterbacks in SEC history. He has a shot to become the league’s all-time leading passer in terms of yards by the end of this season. However, the offense has looked a bit disjointed under first-year coordinator Kevin Barbay.
Wright is a transfer from Vanderbilt who has given the Gamecocks some trouble in the past. He is always a threat to take off and run from the pocket and requires a spy to keep an eye on him in almost every situation. Dual-threat quarterbacks have plagued South Carolina’s defense under Clayton White. On Tuesday, Arnett said that they will definitely have a “package for (Wright)” and that they will “do anything to win.” He understands the importance of this matchup for similar teams and will look to get an edge wherever he can find it. Wright could be the mismatch that sparks the Bulldogs in this one.
South Carolina will need to rely on the increased athleticism at the linebacker position to contain Wright and the rushing attack of the Bulldogs. In his Wednesday press conference, White commented that Pup Howard should have gotten 15-20 more snaps at linebacker against Georgia. “That’s on me,” White said when asked why the freshman phenom did not see more time. Howard will likely spell starter Stone Blanton in situations where speed will become more of a factor.
What to Expect
The Gamecocks and Bulldogs both need this win. The bottom line is that the SEC looks vulnerable and open on both sides of the conference. Personalities on both fronts have stated that every game ahead is winnable. Williams-Brice Stadium will be a factor. Getting this game at home will be huge for Carolina. The Gamecocks are favored in the game in large part because of the home environment.
South Carolina will get ahead early and have to fend off a late push from the Bulldogs. Sanders and the rest of the defensive front will be the difference. They will finally get a solid push and make just enough stops.
Final Score: South Carolina 31 Mississippi State 23
Photo courtesy: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports