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November 1, 2013

Rush's Roundtable

In this special feature, Gamecock Central's football insiders answer five questions about the Gamecocks.

1. What are some of the big reasons why South Carolina has been so good at home over the last two years?

JOSH LOW: I think the biggest reason is just the comfort level the players have in this stadium now. If you listen to the players talk about playing at home, they love it. They play with a different type of emotion at home. The crowd has a lot to do with it as well. The fans have made Williams-Brice one of the toughest places to play in the country. It is one of the goals for the team to win every home game every season. Steve Spurrier has done a good job of making that a priority. They do have some great wins at home, but they have also played some of their toughest competition on the road each season.

RON AIKEN: Talent. That's the easiest reason to point to for why any team wins consistently, and the Gamecocks have been loaded on both sides of the ball. Also, the environment at Williams-Brice Stadium, including the new video board, stadium improvements and, shoot, "Sandstorm" alone have made Columbia a tough place on visitors not just during the streak but dating back to 2009.

AVERY WILKS: The home crowd has really ramped up its game in recent years, giving the Gamecocks a home-field advantage that rivals any other in the country in big-game situations. Sellout crowds have become the norm at Williams-Brice, and the fans don't come to sit and watch the game quietly. The crowd at the 2012 Georgia game was as loud as just about anything I've ever experienced, and it clearly affected what happened on the field. When you add that with how much more physical South Carolina tends to play under the lights at Williams-Brice, it makes the Gamecocks tough to beat in their own backyard.

CHRIS CLARK: Interestingly, South Carolina has not lost at home since the Gamecocks' home debacle against Auburn in 2011. Going back and looking at all of those wins in a row since then, one statistic that stands out is how well USC has protected the ball. USC had three turnovers against Vanderbilt this season that let the Commodores back into a game that appeared well in hand by that time. Other than that, USC had several games with zero or one turnovers, two at the most. The Williams-Brice Stadium crowd typically makes it harder on opposing defenses and as with many other team across college football, the home audience seems to give the team a mental edge. When Ace Sanders took a punt to the house against UGA last year, it may have been the loudest I've heard the stadium in person and Georgia was done after that. It also needs to be noted that USC has played more tough games on the road against ranked opponents than at home the past few seasons, which no doubt has contributed in some capacity.

2. How big will it be for the South Carolina offense to finally get Brandon Wilds back at running back, whether it is this week or the week after the bye?

JOSH LOW: I think it will be big and something that has been a little overlooked over the last couple weeks. Wilds is a proven running back in the SEC. He can go in a spell Mike Davis and the offense doesn't change much. I do think Shon Carson has showed some improvement over the last couple games, but he isn't on the same level as Wilds. Davis can carry the ball 20 times a game and have plenty of success, but he does have to come out of the game a good bit. He is also getting banged up. Wilds is coming back at a good time for South Carolina. It is always a good thing to have plenty of depth at running back in the SEC.

RON AIKEN: Hard to say, as Mike Davis has rightfully received the attention and carries due to his productivity, explosiveness and talent. Had Shon Carson not proven serviceable, this might have been a bigger deal, but really, with the season Davis is having, Wilds' return has generated very little buzz. Hopefully, that will be a positive for him and the unit, and certainly, the depth there at the position is greatly solidified with his return to availability.

AVERY WILKS: South Carolina has made do without Wilds, but getting him back will certainly help. He's a guy that loves to run between the tackles, he makes good decisions, he's fast and he's very hard to bring down. And while he's a step behind Mike Davis in terms of explosiveness, he's a big step up from some of the other options South Carolina has had behind Davis over the past few weeks. Getting him back onto the field will help take some of the pressure and workload off of Mike Davis, and it will give South Carolina a viable option at tailback if Davis gets hurt or runs into fumbling troubles again.

CHRIS CLARK: It will definitely help. Wilds was having a strong season before he went down with the elbow injury against UCF. Shon Carson has appeared to come around some with more reps the past couple of games after a slow start, but Wilds won the backup job for a reason and for the staff to get back a proven guy that can get tough yards, pass protect, catch the ball, and possibly make some big plays when Mike Davis is not toting the ball gives the offense a boost.

3. How much improvement has the defense made over the season? Which positions have made the most improvement on the defense?

JOSH LOW: It is easy to see that improvement has been made on the defensive side of the ball. I think the defensive line is one of the big reasons for the improvement. Jadeveon Clowney has always been there, but others on the unit haven't done what was expected. Kelcy Quarles and J.T. Surratt have really stepped up over the last couple games. I also think Gerald Dixon and Phillip Dukes have improved a good bit since the beginning of the season because of the playing time they have seen. It has been slow but the linebackers are making progress. Skai Moore is the player that stands out to me at linebacker. He is always around the ball. I thought the secondary play was strong last week against Missouri. Chaz Elder has made a difference getting more playing time at safety. It also helps that they have two veteran cornerbacks in Jimmy Legree and Victor Hampton.

RON AIKEN: Only allowing 15 points per game on the road trip was a significant improvement for a unit that looked to be heading in the wrong direction after some late meltdowns. Experience has been the biggest teacher, that and improved communication by everyone on the defensive staff during games. With so many young players behind the defensive line, the only way they were going to learn was by making mistakes, and they've made them. They'll continue to, but one can't argue with results -- it wasn't the defense's fault the offense didn't show up at Tennessee, otherwise you're 7-1 and booking your Atlanta hotel reservation right now.

AVERY WILKS: The defense has made great strides this season, but still seems to give up the occasional third-and-long conversion or big play that keeps it from being considered elite. The defensive line, surprisingly enough, is the unit that's made the most improvement since the beginning of the season. They were expected to be elite coming into the season, but started off slowly while they adjusted to Deke Adams' system. Now eight games into the season, the unit is really playing well together, giving opposing backfield fits and providing the kind of pressure that opens up opportunities for the rest of the defense to make plays. After a slow start, Jadeveon Clowney has put together a string of good performances. And Kelcy Quarles has been an absolute monster of late, leading the SEC in sacks by a defensive tackle with seven.

CHRIS CLARK: Aside from the first game of the season when USC's defense held UNC to 10 points, the past three games (all on the road) were the best performances of the season for USC's defense from a points surrendered standpoint. As with any statistic, context is needed and Arkansas and Tennessee will not be mistaken for high-powered offenses. While there have still been some mistakes in the secondary, missed tackles, and such, the Gamecock defense has shown improvement in buckling down and keeping other teams from scoring a bit more and some individual players also appear to be playing better. The linebacker group really struggled at the beginning of the season and it appears there has been some improvement there as a group as the year has progressed. I also think USC's safety play has been better.

4. After a great start to the season, the last two games have been a little bumpy for the offense. Are there any concerns on that side of the ball going forward?

JOSH LOW: The concern with the offense is they haven't put up the points they should be with all of the yards they are getting. That has been something that has been going on all season. The biggest reason why is because all of the turnovers. The timing of the turnovers has really hurt this offense. They have fumbled inside the five-yard line several times. They have fumbles in the opponent's territory several times. It seems like they have left points on the field every game this season. That is something you wouldn't want to see continue going forward.

RON AIKEN: Not really. Shaw made up for his sub-par performance at Tennessee with a redemptive performance at Missouri, and now the offense has the friendly confines of Williams-Brice in which to play. With Shaq Roland and Brandon Wilds available, if not necessarily back all the way, the depth has improved, and the increased use of the tight ends in the offense is an encouraging sign for the development of an offense that still needs to feature Mike Davis, who is only 70 yards away from a 1,000-yard season.

AVERY WILKS: If Connor Shaw can stay healthy, South Carolina's offense will play at an elite level for the remainder of the regular season. They'll face two of the SEC's top five defenses in Mississippi State and Florida, but I can't bet against Connor Shaw at home, especially with a mammoth offensive line, the SEC's best running back, plenty of capable wide receivers and a pair of NFL-caliber tight ends to work with.

CHRIS CLARK: The biggest concern is turning the ball over. It's something that has hurt USC this season, particularly on the road with big ones at inopportune times. Dylan Thompson drove USC inside Missouri territory twice in the last game, including to the two-yard line and USC fumbled it away. The offense is very good when not stopping itself with penalties and turnovers so those are the things that USC has to avoid most going forward and I think the offense can perform at a high level like it's capable.

5. What are the concerns for this team as a whole going into the game against Mississippi State?

JOSH LOW: It will be interesting to see how this team responds to the big win last week over Missouri. The players have been saying the right things this week. I think the biggest concern this week is the team can't come out flat and let Mississippi State stay in the game.

RON AIKEN: Said it before, will says it again -- special teams. Just terrible decision-making on returns, though once he has the ball Pharoh Cooper is a dangerous returner. The punting game did improve Saturday, with Tyler Hull averaging 44 yards a punt, but that needs to continue if he's ever going to pull himself out of last place in the conference. Also, giving up big returns continues to be a sore spot. This unit has been flirting with disaster the whole season, and it needs to be a reason South Carolina wins a game, not a reason it loses one (like, one could argue, Tennessee).

AVERY WILKS: South Carolina is simply a better team than Mississippi State, so the main concern revolves around the team's mentality entering the game. Can the Gamecocks stay hungry after the huge win at Missouri? Can they grasp the importance of the game to the SEC East race without overlooking Mississippi State? And are they preparing for 4-3 Bulldogs as meticulously as they did for Missouri last week? If the Gamecocks can check their postseason worries at the gate when they enter the stadium and focus on winning only this game, they'll be fine Saturday.

CHRIS CLARK: The biggest concern is the mental aspect. On paper, this is a game USC should win but games aren't played on paper. If so, USC would have a win on the road against Tennessee too and be in the SEC East driver's seat. Coming off of an emotional win against Missouri, South Carolina has a chance to march forward and take care of business in the final two SEC home contests and hope Georgia and Missouri lend a helping hand. None of it will matter if USC drops a winnable home contest to the Bulldogs and snaps a long home winning streak. Mississippi State isn't a great team by any means but as with anyone, capable if USC does not play well. Keeping focus on the task at hand will be most important.

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