Three Matchups to Watch: Vanderbilt vs. South Carolina

After nearly notching their first SEC win in three years last week against Missouri, the well-rested Commodores look to hand South Carolina their second straight loss.

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Vanderbilt Athletics

Elijah McAllister playing against Missouri on Oct. 22, 2022. (Vanderbilt Athletics)

Adam Weiss, Staff Writer

The Vanderbilt Commodores (3-5) are back after a much-needed bye week, coming off a maddening loss to Missouri. Despite allowing zero points in the second half, completing their longest touchdown pass since 2004 and being handed multiple boneheaded plays from the Tigers, the Commodores are still seeking to end their 25-game SEC losing streak. Luckily (or unluckily) for the Commodores, the South Carolina Gamecocks (5-3) come to Nashville on Saturday—Nov. 5—night, coming off an inexplicable loss of their own. 

After earning their first appearance on the AP poll at No. 25 in four years, the Gamecocks failed to back up their ranking with a 23-10 clunker against, of course, Missouri. South Carolina was completely outmatched especially in the running game, being outgained 143-32. South Carolina’s quarterback, Spencer Rattler, followed up the game with an interesting comment at the presser questioning the offense’s direction and planning. Reflecting that statement, he mostly appeared uncomfortable on the field, finishing 20-of-30 for 171 yards and a pick. The Gamecocks head to Nashville hoping to regain their mojo from their previous four game winning streak of sound defense and a pounding run game. 

While the Commodores could not snap their infamous streak two weeks ago, this game may be their final chance with tougher SEC play looming. Vanderbilt open as 7.5 point home underdogs, 7 points better than their odds before the Missouri game. However, with South Carolina coming off a tough loss of their own, expect a team desperate for a win, needed in hopes of earning a decent bowl game. Thus, here are three matchups to watch for this critical SEC showdown on Saturday night. 

The trenches: Vanderbilt front seven vs. South Carolina’s backfield

After getting torched by three conference heavyweights, Vanderbilt’s defense turned in its best performance against Missouri since Week Zero at Hawaii. The Commodores were constantly in the Tigers’ backfield and ultimately posted impressive numbers of 3 sacks, 11 tackles for loss (TFL) and 2 forced fumbles (FF). Senior linebacker Anfernee Orji had an outstanding performance, notching 2.5 TFL, 1 sack, 1 FF and 1 interception. Senior defensive back Jaylen Mahoney also found his way in the backfield, recording a sack and five TFL of his own. 

Tigers quarterback Brady Cook never got comfortable, as he earned his lowest QBR of the year, at 22.9, according to ESPN. Furthermore, Vanderbilt held Missouri to only 97 yards rushing, well below Missouri’s season average of 154 yards. Vanderbilt has shown flashes up front all year and finally put together an impressive performance last game. This recent showing proves valuable due to South Carolina’s strengths and weaknesses.

During their four-game winning streak, South Carolina averaged a staggering 194 yards on the ground. Last week against Mizzou, they had 32. Clearly, the Gamecock offense lives and dies by the run game, as they continue to have Rattler game manage. Fortunately for Vanderbilt, South Carolina’s offensive line has had its woes recently. They’ve given up 10 sacks in the last 3 games, 4 coming just last week. When the run game was neutralized, both Rattler and the offensive line were completely exposed.

The Commodores showed they can bottle up a good run game against Missouri and South Carolina’s ground game is considerably worse. By containing it this week and forcing Rattler to beat them himself, Vanderbilt could be looking at breaking their SEC losing streak—making the battle in the trenches a must-win. 

The air: Vanderbilt receivers vs. South Carolina secondary

Believe it or not, South Carolina is the conference leader in interceptions with 9 and second in passes defended with 36. They’ve also been impressive against No. 1 receivers, holding Kentucky’s Tayvion Robinson and Arkansas’s Matt Landers to 27 and 45 yards, respectively. However, they’ve been vulnerable at times. Last week, they were burnt by Missouri’s Dominic Lovett to the tune of 148 yards. It’s clear their secondary anchors the defense, but they could have their hands full with Vanderbilt’s talented receivers.

The Commodores have had a powerful one-two punch at wideout all year in Will Sheppard and Jayden McGowan. They’ve had some excellent performances, highlighted by Sheppard’s 10 receptions, 171 yards and 2 touchdown performance against NIU. Despite their dominance, the duo combined for only 32 yards against Missouri two weeks ago. In the event the two are clamped up again, Vanderbilt will need offense from their other playmakers, like Gamarion Carter, who had an 80 yard touchdown two weeks ago.

This battle on the outside is a strength-on-strength matchup the Commodores must win to have a chance. If Vanderbilt receivers can make plays on the outside and the defense can overcome South Carolina’s run game, we may see an AJ Swann breakout game and a long-anticipated win against SEC competition.

Both teams vs. external pressure

The mounting pressure against both teams may be the biggest matchup of all. Critics have piled up on both of these teams.

The pressure is mounting for Vanderbilt to break their 25-game SEC losing streak, especially after their disappointing loss to Missouri. Despite Vanderbilt nearly pulling off the win, Missouri then went out last week and dominated the Gamecocks. We all know the transitive property does not exist in college football, but the Gamecocks looked terrible against the team the Commodores almost beat. If South Carolina prevails this week, Vanderbilt’s SEC losing streak may stretch into another year, as only Kentucky, Florida and Tennessee remain on the docket for this season and are much tougher opponents. 

The Gamecocks are also feeling the pressure from all angles. For one, they followed up their first AP poll ranking in four years with a true dud, with which critics had a field day. Their entire offense is also feeling the pressure, specifically Rattler and offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield. Rattler has yet to have a breakout game after transferring from Oklahoma, where he had much better days. Pundits have been harping on his play all year, especially given his preseason expectations. For Satterfield, his play calling has been questionable at best, and the entire offense ranks 12th in the conference. Fans were calling for his firing during the Missouri game, but head coach Shane Beamer indicated his coordinator will not be going anywhere. However, he and the offense need a breakout performance against an inferior opponent to cool his and Rattler’s seats.

Whoever blocks out the noise and responds to the pressure better just may wind up victorious this week. Both teams are fighting for something in their own right, and it should lead to a fun and competitive game. The pair will kick things off on Saturday at 6:30 p.m. CDT at FirstBank Stadium.