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The Big USF vs. South Carolina Preview

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We know a lot about both these teams, and we know how this game should turn out. But bowl games are often decided by factors that don’t have much of anything to do with football.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Steve Spurrier may not have been at his best during his last couple of seasons in charge of South Carolina, but he did know when it was time to get out of the way. With his typical lack of fuss and fanfare, the Head Ball Coach stepped down midway through an ugly 2015 season in which the Gamecocks only won three games. With so much time to find a replacement, South Carolina looked into a number of options (including former USF coach Willie Taggart), but finally they got their man... Will Muschamp?

It was easy to laugh at the hire, and not just from an “SEC incest” perspective. Muschamp flopped about as badly as you can flop at a blueblood program like Florida, with records of 7-5, 7-6, and 4-8 to go with one 11-2 outlier. (That season ended with a thud when the Gators had their doors blown off by Charlie Strong’s Louisville team in the Sugar Bowl.) And it’s not like Muschamp’s stock had recovered in the interim. He went to Auburn in 2015 and oversaw a mediocre defense on a very mediocre team. Expectations for the 2016 Gamecocks were low, so the 6-6 record they scraped together was a pretty good result.

Let’s dig into the stats here:

Peripherals

Team S&P+ (Overall) S&P+ (USF O vs. South Carolina D) S&P+ (South Carolina O vs. USF D) S&P+ (ST)
USF 39 3 100 41
South Carolina 93 117 52 46

South Carolina is simply not very good. They barely scraped by Vanderbilt on a miracle 55-yard field goal, they allowed East Carolina to beat themselves, and they nearly lost to UMass. Their 24-21 win over Tennessee was mostly a result of turnovers and a terrible game from Josh Dobbs. Their #93 S&P ranking is the lowest of any Power 5 team that landed in a bowl, and one of the lowest of any bowl team. Or stated another way, South Carolina finished two spots lower in the S&P than Cincinnati.

Their offense is especially bad. However, some context is required. They are outrageously young at the skill positions. Their starting quarterback and their top two running backs are all freshmen. 96% of their receiving yards came from freshmen and sophomores. This unit has a lot of time to grow together and the extra bowl practices certainly helped them out.

When South Carolina Runs...

Team Rushing S&P+ Run Efficiency Run Explosiveness
South Carolina Offense 106 97 81
USF Defense 101 91 24

USF somehow has a little bit of an advantage here. The Gamecocks run to keep control of the ball, not to roll up big yards. The Bulls were wretched for most of the season against the run, but they made some noticeable improvement in their last two games against SMU (3.3 yards per carry) and UCF (1.8 yards). South Carolina’s Adjusted Line Yards are 110th, indicating a shaky offensive line.

When South Carolina Passes...

Team Passing S&P+ Pass Efficiency Pass Explosiveness
South Carolina Offense 113 118 98
USF Defense 75 81 39

With how green quarterback Jake Bentley and his receivers are, it’s not surprising the passing game ranks so low. Although Bentley takes care of the ball, he has a very high sack rate (11.4%), another byproduct of South Carolina’s bad offensive line. If USF can get a pass rush going, something they haven’t often been able to do this season, they can create some real havoc.

When USF Runs...

Team Run S&P+ Run Efficiency Run Explosiveness
USF Offense 8 32 2
South Carolina Defense 89 92 70

The Gamecocks’ run defense has been mauled most of the season. Georgia ran for 326 yards. Clemson ran for 250 yards. Kentucky got them for 216. Hell, even Western Carolina racked up 236 yards and over five yards per carry. We all know what USF can do to teams on the ground, and it’s not like South Carolina is overflowing with the kind of talent you see on most SEC teams. Maybe in a year or two — maybe — but not right now. The Bulls will get theirs as always.

When USF Passes...

Team Passing S&P+ Pass Efficiency Pass Explosiveness
USF Offense 31 39 8
South Carolina Defense 46 76 6

This could be a bit of a struggle. The consistency of USF’s passing game really tailed off in the last couple of regular-season games, and the Gamecocks are very good at preventing the big pass play. While South Carolina doesn’t have superior talent on defense, they do have equal talent, and their defensive backs may be able to shut down some of USF’s favorite plays.

Danger men in the South Carolina passing defense include defensive end Darius English (nine sacks) and defensive back Jamarcus King (three INTs, nine pass breakups).

Summary and Prediction

Bowl games are so hard to predict, and this one in particular. For one, this will be the first time USF has ever been led by an interim head coach. Will T.J. Weist make the same decisions in the flow of the game that Taggart would have made? (Willie’s decision-making the last two seasons was really underrated. You almost never saw him make a bad strategic decision or commit some kind of clock blunder.) Could that cause the offense to be less sharp than it usually is?

Second, what kind of motivation will these two teams have to play in the game? It’s practically a meme that when SEC teams lose bowl games, it was because they really didn’t want to be there in the first place. But that might truly apply to a team like South Carolina, coming to an unattractive bowl like this one and not bringing many fans with them. Or it could apply to the Bulls, who may not be able to reach the same emotional level without the coach that recruited almost all of them to play for USF.

Third, what effect will the extra bowl practices have? It may have helped South Carolina’s wildly inexperienced offense gel, leading to a better performance in the bowl game. Could Charlie Strong have passed on some ideas to Raymond Woodie to help out the USF defense? Or could the Bulls have grown rusty in the past month?

If you don’t account for any of those factors, then the Bulls should win this game without too much trouble, and that’s the prediction I’ll make. Be aware, though, that this pick could be way off.

USF 38, South Carolina 24