GAME NOTES: SEC East Division rivals meet in one of the first games of the 2012 season, as the ninth-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks pay a visit to the Vanderbilt Commodores.
Steve Spurrier's South Carolina squad comes into the season as one of the favorites to win the division, and the Gamecocks are hoping to continue their recent mastery of SEC East foes as they have won eight straight, and nine of their last 10 overall against them.
USC, which set a school record for wins in a season last year with 11, has won 12 consecutive season openers. However, when the Gamecocks open on the road, they are just 8-18 all-time. They have won their last three lidlifters away from home though. Spurrier is an astounding 21-1 all-time in season openers as a head coach.
Vanderbilt is set to begin the second year of coach James Franklin's tenure, and the Commodores went 6-7 a season ago.
Vandy has won five of its last seven season openers, and a win in this contest would give the 'Dores back-to-back season-opening wins after they whipped Elon last year, 45-14. Additionally, VU can claim its second straight SEC-opening win after topping Ole Miss in 2011, 30-7. The Commodores haven't won consecutive conference openers since taking three straight from Georgia back in 1956-58.
South Carolina owns a commanding 17-4 edge in the all-time series with Vanderbilt, and the Gamecocks have won the last three meetings. Vandy's last win came in Nashville back in 2008.
Junior QB Connor Shaw is the man Spurrier will trust to run his offense on a full-time basis this year, after he completed 65.4 percent of his passes for 1,448 yards, 14 TDs and 6 INTs a season ago. Junior Ace Sanders (29 receptions, 383 yards, 2 TDs) is the team's top returning receiver, and a guy like senior D.L. Moore could make his final year in Columbia a special one if he is able to utilize his 6-foot-5 frame to make himself as big a target as possible down field.
The Gamecocks have one of the nation's elite running backs on the roster, as junior Marcus Lattimore was on his way to a monster season in 2011 before suffering a serious knee injury. In seven games, Lattimore rushed for 818 yards and 10 TDs, averaging 5.0 ypc, and it will be interesting to see just how effective he is early on as he continues to work himself back into playing shape. Only two starters return along the offensive line for a unit that ran the ball far more often than it passed it last year.
Lattimore's rehab has been going well, and he is confident he'll be a major contributor this season, "I feel good. I know it's a long process, but my knee feels great. I'm just taking it day by day, and it's working."
The South Carolina defense allowed just 18.4 ppg last season, and its strength was against the pass as opponents were permitted a mere 131.7 ypg. A total of six guys with starting experience return to the lineup, although the one player that needs to be accounted for every time he steps on the field is sophomore DE Jadeveon Clowney. As a freshman, the gifted pass-rusher finished second on the team in both TFL (12) and sacks (8), while tying for the team-lead in QB Hurries (6) and leading the way in forced fumbles (5).
Senior FS D.J. Swearinger is the top returning tackler after amassing 80 stops last season, and he also tallied 3 INTs, while Shaq Wilson (52 tackles) anchors a linebacking corps that is expected to start all seniors.
Spurrier noted the excitement his players have displayed with the start of the season rapidly approaching, "I think our guys are really starting to look forward to the ballgame Thursday night on national TV."
Vanderbilt also had one of the SEC's top rushers in 2011, as Zac Stacy churned out 1,193 yards and scored 14 TDs, averaging just shy of six yards per attempt. He is back for his senior year, as is QB Jordan Rodgers. Improving his accuracy will be the key to Rodgers' season, as he hit the mark on only 50 percent of his throws a year ago, with 9 TDs and 10 INTs.
Junior Jordan Matthews led all Vandy pass catchers with 41 receptions for 778 yards last year, tallying 5 TDs along the way, while then-freshman Chris Boyd found the end zone 8 times as part of his 31-catch, 473-yard effort.
The left side of the offensive line returns in tact, with junior Wesley Johnson expected to be the glue that holds the unit together.
Defensively, the Commodores should be in decent shape with seven starters back in the fold. Although, the three top tacklers from a year ago are all gone, leaving senior LB Archibald Barnes (59 stops, 2 sacks, 2 INTs) to anchor the group.
Others to keep an eye on include junior DE Walker May (3 sacks), junior LB Chase Garnham (51 tackles), and DBs Javon Marshall (42 tackles, 2 INTs) and Trey Wilson (30 tackles, 3 INTs).
The Vandy defense did a solid job against the run last year (3.6 ypc), including the South Carolina game when it limited Lattimore to 77 yards on 20 carries. The Gamecocks' game-changing RB did finish with 150 all-purpose yards and two TDs, so stopping him will be paramount to keeping the USC offense in check this time around.
South Carolina has the talent to challenge Georgia for the SEC East title, but a lot will hinge on the play of Shaw and the health of Lattimore. Vanderbilt is going to put its best foot forward in an effort to pull off the early upset, but expect the Gamecocks to earn the victory.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: South Carolina 31, Vanderbilt 14