There have been indicators in the first half of the 2012 college football season that the power base in the preeminent conference in the land, the SEC, might be shifting back to the Eastern half of the loop from the West, which has been the premier side of the league the past few seasons.
South Carolina (6-0 straight up, 5-1 vs. the spread; ranked No. 5 in the latest Don Best Linemakers Poll) can deliver a definitive message in that direction as it travels to Baton Rouge for a Saturday showdown vs. West heavyweight LSU (5-1 SU, 2-4 vs. line; No. 7 in latest Don Best Linemakers Poll).
A check with the Don Best college football odds screen notes that the host Tigers have been posted as 2½-point favorites at the majority of Las Vegas sports bookies, with the total bopping between 39 and 39½. Kickoff time at Tiger Stadium has been moved back one hour to 8:00 p.m. (ET), with ESPN on hand to provide the national TV coverage.
Of course, LSU was involved in one of the early-season statement games for the East half of the conference when the Tigers lost at Florida, 14-6, last week. That marked LSU’s first regular-season loss since late in the 2010 campaign when losing at Arkansas (still coached by Bobby Petrino at the time), 31-23. The Tigers were held to only 200 yards of offense at The Swamp in their worst total yardage offensive showing since being held to 162 yards by an Urban Meyer-coached Florida in 2009.
Of concern to Tiger backers is how the team appears not to be peaking as the season progresses. If anything, the opposite seems to be true, especially on the attack end as the offense continues to sputter behind first-year starting QB Zach Mettenberger. Issues along the OL have not helped matters, and it’s not as if the problem areas waited until last week to emerge. LSU was sluggish in previous wins at Auburn (12-10) and at home vs. Towson, and the Tigers have now failed to cover the spread in their last three games as well.
Mettenberger’s numbers have been subpar, as LSU is gaining less than 200 yards per game thru the air, placing the Tigers a lowly 98th in national passing stats. The infantry has been serviceable, led by Kenny Hillard’s 382 rushing yards, but overall the offense has been misfiring.
Turnovers, penalties and inconsistencies have all been part of the early-season LSU narrative, even against lower-level Towson, when Les Miles’ team fumbled the ball five times, and lost three. Execution wasn’t much better last week at Gainesville.
Now, the Tigers must deal with Carolina’s voracious stop unit that ranks fourth nationally in points allowed (10.5 ppg), ninth in rush defense (83 ypg) and 11th in total defense (278 ypg). Bad news for Mettenberger is that the Gamecocks also rank fourth nationally in sacks with 25.
Credit the high-pressure Carolina defensive package, and the unique “Rabbit” looks featuring four defensive ends on the field at the same time on passing downs, for much of that success. Jadeveon Clowney, the highest-profile member of the defensive front, has six solo sacks of his own this season and is beginning to generate some peripheral Heisman Trophy buzz. Fellow linemen Chaz Sutton and Aldrick Fordham are also helping to generate the pressure.
The Gamecocks have been playing top-level defense for a couple of years, but where the real upgrades seem to be manifesting with the offense. That is especially true at QB where junior Connor Shaw looks beyond some early season bumps and bruises and is beginning to provide the leadership that Spurrier’s earlier Columbia editions featuring the likes of QBs Syvelle Newton, Chris Smelley and Stephen Garcia all seemed to lack.
Shaw, who completed 20 straight passes in the 31-10 win over Missouri on September 22, is also getting benefit from a healthy RB Marcus Lattimore, who missed most of last season with a knee injury. Latttimore appears back in top form with 549 rush yards in six games.
Moreover, South Carolina has become used to winning, with 10 wins in a row dating back to the middle of the 2011 campaign. Last week’s 35-7 romp past Georgia was the latest indicator that Spurrier means business, although this week’s game at LSU, and next week’s battle vs. Spurrier’s alma mater Florida, are part of a wicked three-game swing that should indicate if the Gamecocks are serious about entering the BCS title discussion. So far, South Carolina has passed its tests with flying colors.
This is also the first meeting between these sides since 2008, when LSU won 24-17 at Baton Rouge.