Facing their second straight top-10 opponent, the third-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks take to the road this weekend, when they invade Baton Rouge for an SEC showdown against the ninth- ranked LSU Tigers.
Steve Spurrier's Gamecocks were up to the challenge last week in Columbia, as they routed then fifth-ranked Georgia, 35-7 in a battle of SEC East rivals. With the win, South Carolina moved to 6-0 on the season, its best mark since 1988. The team has won 10 straight games overall, the longest win streak in school-history and its current ranking represents the highest since 1984.
Les Miles' Tigers are also facing their second straight top-10 foe, but have been flirting with disaster for the last couple of weeks, edging out Auburn (12-10) and looking sluggish in a win over FCS foe Towson (38-22). It finally caught up with LSU last weekend in Gainesville, where the team dropped a 14-6 decision to the 10th-ranked Florida Gators. Now at 5-1 on the season, LSU plunged to ninth in the rankings and will need to run the table the rest of the way and receive help to get back into the BCS race.
Coming up short is not something LSU has had to deal with a lot lately, but Miles is confident in his team's ability to rebound.
"The good news is that our football team has always really responded personally." said Miles at his weekly press conference. "They recognize that it's not he feeling we're used to having. They recognize that we work too hard to finish second. They're going to look forward to preparing for this opponent that's certainly it's a quality opponent and one that our team will be challenged to prepare for. I think they'll look forward to preparing for it as well."
The Tigers have dominated this series, holding a 16-2-1 advantage all-time, including a 10-1 mark in Baton Rouge. LSU has won four straight against South Carolina.
Long gone are Spurrier's days of the "Fun 'n Gun" that he used so effectively in Gainesville. South Carolina plays a much more methodical game these days, relying heavily on a dominant ground game, instead of airing it out. The team comes into this contest averaging a steady 181.5 yards per game rushing the football, on 4.4 yards per carry.
It helps to have a workhorse in the backfield in the form of All-American Marcus Lattimore. The junior tailback missed half of 2011 with a knee injury, but has found his way back to the field in 2012, leading the team in rushing (549 yards) and touchdowns (9). The 6-foot, 218-pounder is also the team's top receiving threat, coming out of the backfield with 18 receptions, for 133 yards.
Junior quarterback Connor Shaw has been more of a manager of the offense than a game-changer, connecting on 75.7 percent of his passes, for 733 yards, with seven touchdowns and two interceptions. He also adds a running dimension under center, averaging 56.0 yards per game on the ground.
The South Carolina defense was at its best last week against Georgia, holding the Bulldogs to a meager 224 yards of offense. That was nothing new for this aggressive unit, which ranks fourth nationally in scoring defense (10.5 ppg), 11th in total defense (278.0 ypg) and is tied for the most sacks in the country with 25.
The star on the defensive side of the ball is 6-6 sophomore end Jadeveon Clowney. Last season's SEC Defensive Freshman of the Year, Clowney has picked right up where he left off. He has 25 total tackles this season and ranks second in the SEC in both TFLs (11.5) and sacks (6.5).
LSU has put up some big numbers offensively out of conference, but has managed a mere 16 points in its two SEC games thus far. The Tigers have had the majority of their success on the ground this season, ranking fourth in the SEC in rushing at 198.3 yards per game. Unfortunately, passing the ball is not a strength in Baton Rouge, with the Tigers ranking 12th in the SEC at a mere 195.7 ypg.
Quarterback Zach Mettenberger has played to mixed reviews thus far, completing 61.8 percent of his passes, for 1,174 yards, with six touchdowns against three interceptions.
The loss of tailback Alfred Blue (90.0 ypg) has not helped the cause, although Kenny Hilliard (6.6 ypc, six TDs), Michael Ford (5.7 ypc, two TDs) and Spencer Ware (4.6 ypc) have tried to fill the void.
The LSU defense remains one of the nation's best, ranking eighth nationally in scoring defense (12.8 ppg), 15th in rush defense (98.5 ypg), second in pass defense (122.5 ypg) and third overall (221.0 ypg).
Linebacker Kevin Minter has been a big part of it. The junior led LSU with 20 tackles and a forced fumble in the loss to Florida last week and now has a team-high 54 tackles on the year, with 8.5 TFLs and 2.0 sacks.
The front line was supposed to be a dominant force this year, but hyped ends Sam Montgomery (18 tackles, 6.5 TFLs, 2.0 sacks) and Barkevious Mingo (16 tackles, 2.0 TFLs, 1.0 sack) have yet to deliver big numbers.
Getting overconfident is always a fear heading in to the second half of the season.
"All we have to do is remind ourselves of that Kentucky first half and the Vandy game," said Spurrier. We were very fortunate to beat Vandy. Sometimes that's how you hope your season goes. We still have a tough road ahead of us."