South Carolina (2-1, 0-1 SEC) faces its first litmus test of the Shane Beamer era on Saturday in Columbia.
There aren’t necessarily must-win games three weeks into a season, but USC’s meeting with a 3-0 Kentucky squad certainly warrants consideration.
Saturday’s contest (7 p.m., ESPN2) should give us the first real feel for what South Carolina’s offense might look like when clicking on all cylinders as Luke Doty makes his triumphant return to the starting huddle.
Doty was largely good against Georgia despite shaking off some rust early. Eventually, though, he found a groove. Doty completed 7 of his last 11 passes, and his 36-yard touchdown connection with Josh Vann is the only score the Bulldogs have surrendered this season.
USC offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield told reporters Wednesday that Doty’s availability doesn’t necessarily change the playbook. It may not change the play calls all that much, but it certainly gives South Carolina more options in the run game given Doty’s ability to extend plays with his legs.
As for the rest of the offense, South Carolina’s run game has been mediocre at best the past two weeks. Outside of Juju McDowell’s big second half that carried USC to a nervy win at East Carolina in Week 2, the Gamecocks were largely stalled against ECU and Georgia. That can’t happen again Saturday.
Satterfield said he’s hoping to find one running back and establish a rhythm with them while also cycling in any of South Carolina’s other dynamic tailbacks. Kevin Harris got the bulk of the work last week at Georgia with 16 touches. The next closest running backs were ZaQuandre White and MarShawn Lloyd with five each. McDowell didn’t even register a carry on the night.
Vann has been the biggest bright spot for a South Carolina offense that has been hit or miss so far this fall. He currently ranks fourth in the Southeastern Conference in yards per game (94) and has already eclipsed his career mark for yards in a season. He’s also averaging more than 28 yards per catch.
Kentucky’s defense has been susceptible over the past two weeks against Missouri and UT-Chattanooga. Don’t be surprised if Satterfield and Beamer take a shot early in this one and let Vann go up and get a ball.
Speaking of going up and making a play, how about Jaylan Foster? The South Carolina safety currently leads the SEC with three picks and had a fourth called back in the opener against Eastern Illinois due to a penalty.
The Gamecocks defense, and the secondary in particular, have held strong through three games this season — though they gave up a few more chunk plays to Georgia than defensive coordinator Clayton White would like.
Saturday, the Gamecocks’ back end will get its stiffest test of the year in Kentucky receiver Wan’Dale Robinson. Robinson currently sits second in the SEC in receiving yards per game (112.3) and he’s eclipsed the 100-yard plateau in each of the Wildcats’ three contests.
That’s not to mention rocket-armed quarterback Will Levis, who shined over the first week-plus of the season but came back to earth against Chattanooga. Beamer lauded Levis for his deep ball and his athleticism around the pocket. South Carolina’s defensive line will have to hold contain when bringing pressure, or Levis might be able to walk for a handful of first downs.
Kentucky has been a beacon of consistency in the SEC East over the past decade under head coach Mark Stoops. The Wildcats have won at least seven games in four of the last five seasons — including a 10-3 campaign in 2018. The only time UK dipped below that mark was going 5-6 during last year’s pandemic affected season.
Stoops has also guided Kentucky to wins over South Carolina in six of their last seven meetings, and he owns a 6-2 record over USC since he was hired in 2013.
Ask just about anyone around this South Carolina program — and certainly most every fan — and they’ll tell you Kentucky should be a win every year. The problem? These aren’t your father’s Wildcats.
South Carolina has the same number of wins (2) over Georgia since 2013 as it does Kentucky.
Gamecock fans can hoot and holler about being a contender in the SEC East again all they want, but that won’t happen until South Carolina beats the teams in the middle of the pack regularly, let alone the Floridas and Georgias of the world.
Win Saturday and there’s a better than good chance South Carolina could eke its way into a bowl game with matchups against Troy, Tennessee and Vanderbilt looming. Lose and the Gamecocks are staring 5-7 square in the face.
Saturday’s not a must-win, but it’s damn close.
— Prediction: Kentucky 31, South Carolina 21 —