10 questions for USC-Vanderbilt

South Carolina faces Vanderbilt on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Williams-Brice Stadium in the second SEC game of the season for both schools. Both teams come into the game with 3-0 records. Here are 10 key questions for the game:
1. Is this one of those games where turnovers will be the difference?: Yes. The USC-Vanderbilt series has turned into what USC-Georgia used to be - close, low-scoring and hard-fought games. In the last four years, the winning team has averaged 19.0 points per game. In games of that nature, turnovers are typically the difference. USC and Vanderbilt are the top two teams in the SEC in forcing turnovers. The Commodores have 12 compared to nine for USC. Thirteen of those 21 turnovers have been interceptions. Clearly, both defenses have relied on big plays. Vanderbilt had five interceptions against Ole Miss last week and leads the SEC with a turnover margin of plus-6. They've feasted on turnovers by the opponents. USC is third at plus-two. Suffice it to say, the team that wins the turnover battle will win this game.
2. How many carries will Marcus Lattimore get?: Probably 25 to 30. If you ask Lattimore, he would say he wants the ball even more. Yet, some people insist Lattimore is being overused. Hogwash. Despite those claims, Lattimore has been at his best in the fourth quarter this season. He had 13 carries for 55 yards in the final frame against Navy last weekend, seven days after scorching Georgia for 94 yards in the fourth quarter on Sept. 10. If the score is close throughout USC will continue to rely on Lattimore. Steve Spurrier has talked this week about giving other running backs a chance, but the reality is that the more Lattimore gets the ball, the more USC wins. The Gamecocks are 8-0 since the beginning of last year when he has 20 or more carries.
3. Can Vanderbilt stop Lattimore?: Probably not. Vanderbilt is fourth in the SEC in rushing defense with an average of 85.7 yards per game allowed, and haven't allowed 90 yards rushing to any of their first three opponents. Not bad. But Lattimore is living in an entirely different stratosphere when it comes to the quality of running backs the Commodores have faced so far. Brandon Bolden of Ole Miss was regarded as one of the better ball carriers in the SEC when the season started. He had eight carries for 39 yards last Saturday. But the entire Rebels offense is dysfunctional right now. The combination of Lattimore and the USC offensive line is by far the best the Commodores have seen. And USC will keep pounding Lattimore at the 'Dores until they break.
4. We've heard about the Vanderbilt defense. What about their offense?: It's average. Vanderbilt is 10th in the SEC in total offense (318.3 ypg), 83 yards per game less than USC. The Commodores had success running the football last week against Ole Miss as Zac Stacy had a career-high 169 yards on only 11 carries. Again, the USC defense will be the best Vanderbilt has faced this season. In terms of throwing the ball, the Commodores are last in the SEC with an average of 141.3 ypg though the air and they've given up 10 sacks. Vanderbilt has rarely been very good throwing the football - the Jay Cutler/Earl Bennett Era is the exception - so USC could stack the box with eight or nine defenders and dare the 'Dores to beat them by throwing the football. Quarterback Larry Smith's passing statistics have improved from last season, but, then again, there was no place to go but up. Smith has completed only 48.4 percent of his passes in his career, yet ranks 10th among Vanderbilt's all-time pass yardage leaders.
5. What's the most intriguing battle based on the statistics?: USC's red zone offense against Vanderbilt's red zone defense. Because of Lattimore's powerful presence, USC has been able to score 10 touchdowns in 13 trips inside the red zone, meaning they're not settling for field goals. Nine of those touchdowns have been on the ground, the most in the SEC. USC is the only SEC team that has yet to kick a field goal after penetrating the red zone. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt has yielded only one touchdown and two field goals in five trips inside the red zone by their opponents to rank second in the SEC behind Arkansas. Thus, Vanderbilt has done a great job preventing their opponents from putting the ball into the end zone when they drive inside the 20. They should provide some resistance to Lattimore. How many yards he is able to gain in the red zone could be another key statistic in the game. It will be a battle to keep an eye on.
6. Will there be a defensive TD scored in this game?: Yes, the odds are good that will happen. Both defenses have been very opportunistic in terms of turning a turnover directly into points. Both teams have scored three touchdowns on defense. USC has a Pick-6 by Antonio Allen and two fumble recoveries (one by Allen was a clear strip), while Vanderbilt has three interceptions returned for touchdown, one in each game. It's the second time in school history the Commodores have recorded a Pick-6 in three straight games. Clearly, big plays by their respective defenses is one of the main reasons USC and Vanderbilt are both 3-0. Whichever team cam come up with a defensive TD will hold a significant edge as far as who wins the game.
7. What's the biggest issue Vanderbilt faces?: Playing on the road in the SEC. Beating Elon, UConn and Ole Miss at home is nice, but any SEC team doesn't truly prove themselves until they go on the road and beat somebody. USC has already passed the test with the Sept. 10 win at Georgia. Vanderbilt has received a lot of love from the media this week because of their fast start, but as a program they are 5-15 on the road in the SEC over the last five seasons, including a combined 1-7 in 2009 and 2010. As a result, they have very few players on the roster who have experienced any type of road success. This will be James Franklin's first SEC road game as a head coach. Vanderbilt planned to import loudspeakers into practice this week to give their players an opportunity to work with deafening noise all around them. But it's never the same as the real thing. How Vanderbilt handles the crowd noise is a major storyline for this game.
8. Has USC returned to the defensive lineup from last season?: Yes. USC utilized a three-man rotation at safety last season with DeVonte Holloman, D.J. Swearinger and Akeem Auguste. The latter moved back to cornerback in the spring, but is now out with an injury. Holloman spent the spring working out at spur linebacker. But free safety remained a trouble spot, and after Jimmy Legree played poorly at Georgia, the USC defensive coaches pulled the trigger. Holloman returned to strong safety, while Swearinger slid back to free safety. The early returns from the Navy game were good, so look for that lineup to remain intact for the time being.
9. What's the best individual matchup?: USC wide receiver Alshon Jeffery v. Vanderbilt cornerback Trey Wilson. Jeffery, as we know, is one of the top receivers in the country. He had only two catches against Navy, but remains one of the most feared receivers around. Wilson is one of the top ball-hawking corners in the SEC. He has three interceptions and two Pick-6s in the first three games. If not Wilson, look for senior Casey Heyward to match up with Jeffery. Either way, watching Jeffery try to get open against either Vanderbilt DB will be intriguing.
10. Has Spurrier been too hard on USC's defensive coaches?: Possibly. He did it again on Wednesday when he told the media this during the SEC teleconference: "Vandy is very well coached. Those guys are in position. Sometimes I'm amazed the other teams get their guys in position all the time and it seems like we're struggling to get our guys in position defensively." Spurrier's best ammunition is the statistics. USC is 11th in scoring defense (33.3 ppg), 10th in total defense (372.0 ypg), ninth in passing defense (189.7 ypg) and ninth in rushing defense (182.3 ypg). As far as he's concerned, the defense has underachieved through the first three weeks. He's expecting improvement this week against a Vanderbilt offense that hasn't overwhelmed opponents in the past.
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D. McCallum