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November 8, 2013

Rush's Roundtable

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

1. What are the benefits for South Carolina to have the bye week at this time?

JOSH LOW: It is pretty much the same as it was during the last bye week. It is coming at a good time to get some key players healed up. Connor Shaw, Mike Davis, Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles, Brandon Wilds, Ronald Patrick and more are a little banged up and need a week off. It is also big that it comes right before what could be the biggest game of the season against Florida. There really aren't any reasons why this team shouldn't be well prepared for the Gators next week and come away with a win.

AVERY WILKS: The bye week comes at a good time mentally and physically for South Carolina. The Gamecocks can spend an extra week preparing a game plan for Florida, and the players have an extra week to consider its importance to the SEC Eastern Division race and treat it like a Super Bowl in its own right. Physically, having this weekend off will give the team a chance to lick its wounds and heal up some injuries that have nagged the players all season. It will also allow the Gamecocks to have fresh legs against a Florida team that's coming off back-to-back games against Georgia and Vanderbilt - which both had byes before facing the Gators.

RON AIKEN: Besides healing bumps and bruises common to this time of the season, it's the chance for an extra week of preparation for the biggest remaining game on your schedule -- Florida. Use every bit of time you can to prepare for this game -- Coastal and Clemson mean nothing to the SEC race, and payback is required here after USC buried itself in the SEC race last season with its worst performance of the year in Gainesville. Payback is required, and the Gators need to be stomped.

CHRIS CLARK: Aside from giving the team a few extra days to prepare for a game that is a must-win to stay in the SEC East race against Florida at home, this bye week gives USC an opportunity to rest up the players as much as possible for the home stretch which features the aforementioned matchup with the Gators as well as home games against Coastal Carolina and rival Clemson. USC has some players with nagging injuries (Mike Davis and Jadeveon Clowney have both rested during practice this week, for example) and the extra week will allow everyone to get healthy for an important game.

2. Who has been the most surprising player so far this season on both sides of the ball?

JOSH LOW: I still think it is Clayton Stadnik on offense. There isn't anyone that follows South Carolina that would have thought that Stadnik would have played this much or played this well. He hasn't played perfect, but he has definitely stepped up and exceeded everyone's expectations. He has went from someone that got passed by a true freshman in fall practice on the depth chart at center to a player that could be a mainstay on the offensive line over the next three years. On defense, I think it has to be Gerald Dixon. Personally, I had almost written him off. I thought he would be someone that just added depth at defensive end. Now he is pushing Chaz Sutton for playing time and should be considered a favorite to start next year. He is fundamentally sound, plays his assignments and has been very productive this year.

AVERY WILKS: Most surprising on offense has been Mike Davis. We all had an idea that he might become a breakout player, but no one expected him to be this consistently dominant. With at least 115 yards from scrimmage in every game this season, he's pulled away as the best back in the SEC and established himself as one of the best in the nation, something no one expected after his 52-carry, 275-yard freshman campaign. The pleasant surprise on defense has been Kelcy Quarles. The junior defensive tackle was overlooked in the preseason because of the hype that surrounded Jadeveon Clowney and Chaz Sutton, but he's outplayed both of them this season, ranking second in the SEC with seven sacks and 11 tackles for loss.

RON AIKEN: On offense, Mike Davis. No way anyone saw Davis leading the SEC in rushing. No way. For most, it was hoped he'd be a competent back, one that didn't mean you suffered a drop off in talent after Marcus Lattimore. Instead, you get a back who is better than the post-injuries Lattimore and maybe better than the pre-injury Lattimore -- after all, just 139 more yards and he's bested Lattimore's best season, his freshman year in 2010. On defense, it's Jadeveon Clowney, though for reasons almost none of us would have guessed in August. Sure, teams run away from him; sure, he gets double-teamed, but so does every other team's best player, so it's time to put those excuses to bed and just admit he's not having a great season or even a good one, really. It's no crime. It's disappointing, but nothing to file charges about. He's trying, he's playing, but it's just not happening for him, and the result will be that despite (I predict) making no all-conference or All-American teams, he'll still go insanely high in the draft and have a wonderful career in the NFL.

CHRIS CLARK: On offense, it has to be redshirt freshman center Clayton Stadnik. He lost his job for a while in the preseason to a true freshman that did not play center in high school and responded by manning the spot for all but one game this season. He garnered SEC OL of the Week honors after playing against Georgia and for the most part has been solid inside for USC. Nobody expected him to perform as he has. On defense, I would go with defensive end Gerald Dixon. He has seen his playing time steadily increase lately and has a very good chance to be a starter next season. Dixon is not as physically gifted as some of the other linemen on the roster but plays hard and is very fundamentally sound. He always seems to be in position and he's had some big plays this season for the Gamecocks.

3. Steve Spurrier mentioned more physical practices this week during his press conference Saturday after the game. Why do you think Spurrier wants to get more physical this week?

JOSH LOW: I think that was more directed at the offense. It was obvious that Spurrier was not pleased at all Saturday after the game with his offense. I think he felt like they got pushed around a little and even mentioned they looked soft at times. The offense hasn't played like expected since the Arkansas game so I'm sure he is sending them a message this week. They are also about to play a very physical Florida defense. They got embarrassed last year in Gainesville and will need to be ready for a hard-hitting game.

AVERY WILKS: It's possible he's trying to prepare the team for Florida's physicality. The Gators run the ball over 43 times a game and own the SEC's second-best defense, despite the injuries they've suffered. South Carolina was manhandled in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium by this team last season, and it's seems Spurrier is just trying to make sure his team is ready to do the manhandling next Saturday.

RON AIKEN: He watched his offense get pushed around physically in the loss to Tennessee and he watched his offense get pushed around by Mississippi State. Really, that has nothing to do with the defense, except that Spurrier includes everyone in his statements. The defense is playing as physical as they possibly can and is actually getting better. The offense appears to be sputtering, scoring 21, 17 and then 34 in the last three games in regulation. Those are poor numbers, especially given that it took an amazing five turnovers to help the offense to 34 points. So, the physical comments have everything to do with Spurrier's frustration at his own offense and very little else.

CHRIS CLARK: Spurrier sounded frustrated with the offense after a three-game stretch against Missouri, Tennessee, and Mississippi State in which the offense sputtered at times. Even though USC had 34 points against Mississippi State, the team was 1 for 11 on third downs and had several drives that went three-and-out. USC was able to capitalize on Bulldog turnovers with a short field to score, but the Head Ball Coach wants a better performance going forward. He said following that game that perhaps USC needs to be "meaner" during practice. Traditionally, Spurrier does not like to do a ton of hitting in practice to avoid injuries in non-game situations, but perhaps he lets back on that a little bit to try to provide a spark.

4. For South Carolina to finish the season with success, what player on both sides of the ball needs to step up the most and finish the season strong?

JOSH LOW: I think it is obviously Connor Shaw on the offensive side of the ball. They need a healthy Shaw to finish off the season. This offense is so much more dynamic when Shaw is a threat to run the ball. It opens things up in the passing game and also helps Mike Davis in the running game. The offensive line also deserves mention here as well. It is time for Jadeveon Clowney to start making big-time plays. He has impacted the game in a big way this season, but it is time for him to start making those sacks and forcing those turnovers. The stage isn't going to get much bigger than Florida, Clemson, and possibly an SEC Championship game for Clowney.

AVERY WILKS: South Carolina will be very hard to beat if Shaq Roland can make the most of his talents. He's a game changer when he lines up in the right spots and runs the right routes, and he gives the offense a whole extra dimension whenever he's dialed in. If he can prove himself in the next few weeks, he will demand additional attention from opposing defenses, which will open up opportunities for the rest of the offense. On defense, Chaz Sutton needs to break out in the next few weeks. The senior defensive end has just two sacks and 26 tackles this season, despite lining up in one-on-one situations and having opposing teams run at him all game long. He's gone quiet for weeks at a time this season, but South Carolina's defensive line will be terrifying if he becomes the player we predicted him to be during fall camp.

RON AIKEN: Connor Shaw. He was great in the fourth quarter and overtime against Missouri, but pretty lousy, if we're being honest, at Tennessee and last week (10-20 passing). His running game has been taken away with the leg injury, so he's now just a pocket passer. Shaw's inability to scramble for first downs was a huge reason the offense was 1-for-12 converting third downs last week, and his receivers need to recognize that and come back to the ball more. For this offense to score enough points to beat Florida, Coastal and, enemy of enemies, Clemson, Shaw needs to put it all together and shake off the Tennessee and MSU games.

CHRIS CLARK: On offense, I'm going to be watching Connor Shaw. Given how good he's been, even when hurt, it's hard to say he "needs to step up", but he will face a Florida defense that still has a lot of athletes and speed and a Clemson defense that seems improved in some areas from last season and that will try to get after the passer. Teams will key on Mike Davis going forward and so it will be up to Shaw to continue playing his brand of efficient football and make plays. Defensively, as much disruption Jadeveon Clowney has caused with opposing teams' offensive gameplanning, he has certainly left some plays on the table this season. Clowney had big games against Florida and Clemson last season and if he could have similar performances it could open things up for USC's defense in a big way. If he could finish some of those tackles for loss or sacks that he's narrowly missed this season it could change the game. Will he force one of those signature turnovers this season down the stretch?

5. The SEC East still seems to be a three-team race. How do you see the race playing out?

JOSH LOW: It is going to be fun to watch. It will all start next week with the South Carolina/Florida and Georgia/Auburn matchups. Obviously, South Carolina needs both Georgia and Missouri to lose one game each. I'm still leaning towards that happening. Georgia is a different team with Todd Gurley and that Auburn game is going to be interesting. I have to favor the home team in that matchup right now. I think Missouri will trip up to Texas A&M and possibly Ole Miss as well. The funny thing is that South Carolina, assuming it beats Florida next week, possibly won't know its fate until the Saturday it plays Clemson. It could be after the Clemson game depending on the times of the games that week. I would still predict South Carolina to be in Atlanta as of today, but it could go either way. I would say Missouri has the next best shot.

AVERY WILKS: I see Missouri representing the SEC East in Atlanta. I think South Carolina will beat Florida to stay alive in the race, and I think Missouri could drop one of its two games against Ole Miss and Texas A&M, but Georgia is a different team with Todd Gurley back in the lineup. I wouldn't be surprised if the Bulldogs marched into Jordan-Hare Stadium and exposed a suspect Auburn defense on Nov. 16. Georgia's only SEC opponent after that game is Kentucky, and, without another Georgia loss, South Carolina's chances of winning the division are doubtful.

RON AIKEN: USC will make it to Atlanta. Count on that. Auburn will beat UGA, Missouri will lose either to Ole Miss, Texas A&M or both. UGA is out of gas for this season, and Auburn is just cranking up for a super showdown with Alabama. The Gamecocks will be the SEC East champs in 2013.

CHRIS CLARK: As of today, I honestly think South Carolina has an excellent shot of winning it. USC has to beat Florida obviously and then hope for help from Georgia and Missouri in losing another game. From my vantage point, Auburn has a good shot of beating UGA at home because I think the Tigers could run all over UGA's defense and get enough stops on defense. Missouri has to play Texas A&M and Ole Miss from the West and both of those games will be challenging. I could see Missouri losing one or both, but it would be no shock to see them win both either.

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