GamecockCentral - Year 6 Begins: USC-Southern Miss Preview
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Year 6 Begins: USC-Southern Miss Preview

What: Southern Miss (0-0) at South Carolina (0-0);
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium (80,250), Columbia, S.C.;
When: Thu., Sept. 2, 7:30 p.m.;
TV/Radio: ESPN (Rece Davis, Craig James, Jesse Palmer); Gamecock Radio Network, 107.5 FM In Columbia (Todd Ellis, Tommy Suggs, Terry Cousin); Replay on SportSouth Sun. 9/5 at 8 p.m. (Andy Demetra and Brad Muller).
South Carolina opens Year 6 of the Steve Spurrier Era Thursday night when they take on the Southern Miss Golden Eagles at Williams-Brice Stadium. After a disappointing finish to 2009, the Gamecocks are hungry to begin the current campaign on a positive note. But the season begins under a gray cloud with a NCAA investigation into the former housing arrangements of several USC players at the Whitney Hotel. Right now, we know one player connected to the Whitney, tight end Weslye Saunders, won't play in Thursday night's game. But we still haven't received an answer on a half dozen or more other players, most of whom are projected starters.
We finally got our answer late Wednesday morning to the question of whom would start at quarterback for USC. Steve Spurrier had been dropping hints for a few days that Stephen Garcia would take the opening snap for the Gamecocks with untested true freshman Connor Shaw making his college debut at some point in the first half.
Spurrier finally made it official during his weekly appearance on the SEC teleconference.
Even though Spurrier used Garcia as a personal punching bag for most of the spring and summer, the redshirt junior actually enjoyed a good season in 2009 with 2,862 passing yards and 17 touchdowns. But he was also sacked 37 times and, in the eyes of Spurrier, not all of those lost yardage plays were the fault of the offensive line. Too often, Garcia held onto the ball too long before being dropped or, in other situations, scurried out of the pocket too quickly before giving the play a chance to develop.
Will Thursday night begin a breakthrough season for Garcia or will the contest mark the beginning of the transition to Shaw? We might have an answer around 10:30 p.m. Thursday night.
Like the quarterback position, running back also features a true freshman Gamecock fans are eager to watch against a real opponent. Spurrier says highly-touted Marcus Lattimore, the No. 1 running back prospect in the country during the 2010 recruiting cycle, will make his USC debut early in Thursday's game, possibly in relief of starter Brian Maddox, a senior with 442 career rushing yards.
Could USC give Southern Miss an all-freshman look with Shaw at quarterback and Lattimore at running back? It could happen.
Kenny Miles, last season's leading rusher with 626 yards, should also get plenty of carries. Miles was able to jump from fourth to first on the depth chart last season because of his tough, physical running style that bowled over defenders.
Add Jarvis Giles into the mix and the running back position features unprecedented depth. However, as running backs coach Jay Graham has claimed, only two, maybe three, ball carriers will be featured on a weekly basis.
Led by super sophomores Alshon Jeffery, Tori Gurley and D.L. Moore, the USC wide receiver corps is tall, talented and ready to make a national impact. The departure of Moe Brown was the only significant loss for a unit that lists seven freshman or sophomores among the eight players on the depth chart.
Another impressive freshman, 5-foot-8 Ace Sanders, is being eyed for a pivotal role at the slot receiver position.
Spurrier has been impressed with the performance of new offensive line coach Shawn Elliott in his first eight months on the job. The O-line has shown better toughness, physicality and discipline with Elliott relying on a tough love approach. However, two linemen (Jarriel King and Terrence Campbell) are involved in the Whitney Hotel situation and could be suspended for the opener.
The Southern Miss defense was flat out awful in 2009, finishing 80th in the country in total defense (392.5 ypg). The pass coverage was especially porous with a 109th ranking nationally. But USM head coach Larry Fedora is optimistic the Golden Eagles will show improvement in 2010.
Without question, the strength of the Southern Miss defense is at linebacker where standouts Korey Williams (121 tackles in 2009), Ronnie Thornton (114 stops) and Martez Smith (82 tackles) roam sideline to sideline. The trio combined for 29 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks in 2009.
USM has feasted on turnovers in Fedora's first two years as head coach. When the Golden Eagles force two or more turnovers, they are 13-5 under Fedora. USM tied for 25th nationally in turnovers gained with 27 in 2009.
In short, if the USC offense doesn't turn the ball over, they should have their way with the Southern Miss defense.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Stephen Garcia, RB Marcus Lattimore, RB Kenny Miles, WR Alshon Jeffery, WR Tori Gurley, WR D.L. Moore, FB/TE Patrick DiMarco, C T.J. Johnson.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DT John Henderson, MLB Korey Williams, SLB Martez Smith, FS Kendrick Presley.
COACH'S COMMENT: "Southern Miss has got a lot of football tradition out there. Their team has been good over the years. I think they've been to something like eight straight bowl games, and I don't think they've had a losing record in 15, 18 years. Southern Miss is a team with tremendous football tradition. They really have won a lot of games." - USC head coach Steve Spurrier.
Two words describe the Southern Miss offense under Larry Fedora - fast paced. The Golden Eagles will try to keep the USC defense off-balance and out of rhythm with a no-huddle, high-tempo attack that tries to exhaust an opposing defenses over four quarters.
Like USC, Southern Miss also has two quarterbacks ready to play, but Fedora didn't hesitate in naming 6-foot-2, 200-pound junior Austin Davis as the starter prior to the start of pre-season camp. Davis missed the final eight games last season with a ligament tear in his left foot after enjoying a solid start with a 69.2 percent completion percentage (108-of-156) and 10 TD passes in the first five games.
Davis, who has thrown at least one TD pass in 17 of his first 18 career games, including the last 12 in a row, is backed up by Martevious Young, a fifth year senior with eight career starts. In the final eight games last season, Young completed 57.6 percent (129-of-224) of his passes for 1,845 yards and 16 TD passes.
The graduation of all-time leading rusher Damion Fletcher (1,015 yards in 2009; 5,302 career yards), as well as the departure of last season's second leading rusher, Tory Harrison (647 yards) means Southern Miss lost 70.5 percent of their rushing production from a year ago.
After Fletcher dominated the position for a couple of years, USM will likely rely on a running back by committee approach led by little used senior V.J. Floyd (59 yards in 2009; 398 career yards). He will be joined in the backfield by Tracy Lampley (122 yards in 2009), Desmond Johnson (72 yards) and redshirt freshman Kendrick Hardy. With so much inexperience in the backfield and offensive line, Southern Miss could find running the football very difficult against USC's aggressive front seven.
The biggest name on the Southern Miss offense is 6-foot-6 junior WR DeAndre Brown, a potential high round NFL Draft pick next April. Brown was sensational as a freshman in 2008 with a single season school record 67 receptions and earned Freshman All-America honors. But he suffered a severe leg injury in the 2008 New Orleans Bowl and wasn't 100 percent healthy for most of last season. He still finished with 47 catches. Without a doubt, he is the main weapon for the USM offense and keeping him bottled up will be a major challenge for the USC secondary.
The Southern Miss offensive line features four new starters and could be a liability against possibly the best defense the Golden Eagles will face all season.
The USC defense could face the loss of multiple starters if the NCAA makes a ruling on the Whitney Hotel case prior to kickoff. Free safety Akeem Auguste, cornerback C.C. Whitlock, DT Ladi Ajiboye and DT Travian Robertson are all at risk to miss the game. If they do, Head Defensive Coach Ellis Johnson will have to move some pieces around to fill the gaps.
If Auguste and Whitlock are forced to sit out, Chris Culliver will start at cornerback and D.J. Swearinger, currently the backup to DeVonte Holloman at strong safety, will return to his former position of free safety, leaving USC with little experienced depth in the secondary.
Besides the Whitney fallout, the biggest story for the USC defense is the absence of outside linebacker Shaq Wilson, who suffered a hamstring injury on the first day of fall practice and worked out just once after that. Tony Straughter and Quin Smith have competed through camp to replace him. Both will play.
Rodney Paulk and Josh Dickerson should also share snaps at middle linebacker.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Austin Davis, RB V.J. Floyd, RB Tracy Lampley, WR DeAndre Brown, WR Quentin Pierce, C Cameron Zipp.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DE Cliff Matthews, DE Devin Taylor, DT Ladi Ajiboye, MLB Rodney Paulk, MLB Josh Dickerson, CB Stephon Gilmore, SS Akeem Auguste, CB Chris Culliver, SS DeVonte Holloman,
COACH'S COMMENT: "It is a great atmosphere and they have a tremendous fan base. It will be packed and it will be loud. It will be a lot fun under the lights." - Southern Miss head coach Larry Fedora.
Quarterback - Slight Edge to USC
Running Back - Edge to USC
Wide Receiver - Slight Edge to USC
Offensive Line - Slight Edge to USC
Tight End - Slight Edge to USC
Defensive Line - Edge to USC
Linebacker - Slight Edge to Southern Miss
Secondary - Edge to USC
Special teams - Edge to USC.
SYNOPSIS: Out of all the numbers and statistics that have been thrown around in connection with this matchup, here's the most important one: USC head coach Steve Spurrier is 38-0 against schools from non-BCS conferences in his coaching career, 12-0 since joining USC. He simply doesn't lose games like this, especially when his team is a two-touchdown favorite. Typically, USC had avoided being upset by inferior teams during his tenure until the bowl loss to UConn. Frankly, a SEC school should not lose to a C-USA team, especially at home. Thursday night games at Williams-Brice Stadium have been a house of horrors for Gamecock opponents in recent years. USC is 4-0 in Thursday night season openers under Spurrier, 2-0 at home. Southern Miss is a decent team and should compete for the C-USA title after they leave Columbia, but they simply lack sufficient weapons on both sides of the ball to pull out the win. Unless, of course, USC commits a bunch of turnovers and the offense becomes stagnant. The guess here is that won't happen.
PREDICTION: USC enters this game with numerous questions on offense. Is QB Stephen Garcia capable of leading this team to victory lane on a consistent basis? Will the offensive line finally play with intensity and fire? Is RB Marcus Lattimore the real deal? Answers to those key questions will start to be unearthed Thursday night. Southern Miss has enough talent to stick with the Gamecocks for a half or more, but USC's apparent advantage on both lines of scrimmage should allow the Gamecocks to pull away starting in the middle of the third quarter. Southern Miss will come to Columbia hoping to make a splash nationally. Third-year head coach Larry Fedora is seeking a breakthrough win with the Golden Eagles. They're confident they have the talent to pull it off. With players like Austin Davis, DeAndre Brown and Korey Williams on the roster, they will be a threat, at least for a while. Despite their national reputation as giant killers, USM has lost eight straight games to SEC opponents. Don't look for that winless streak to come to a halt on Thursday night.
The Pick: USC 27, SOUTHERN MISS 10.
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