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August 24, 2012

Cloninger: Win, Lose or Tie?



"Win or lose, lose or win."
--------------------- STATUS QUO

I've never been one of those media types to sit around and try to predict what's going to happen, game by game, through the entire season while still in the throes of preseason camp. There's too much that can happen in one day of practice (don't believe me, just check Thursday's practice report), to try and accurately predict what will happen on Nov. 10 vs. Arkansas, much less on Thursday at Vanderbilt.

It's silly and really, foolish, to pick scores for games three months ahead. Picking the winners, I can see, but then there's always the chance of putting out something that might change after other information comes available - like Tennessee's surprising suspension of top receiver Da'Rick Rogers on Thursday. That alone could turn the Volunteers from an eight-win team to a five- or six-win team that may ship coach Derek Dooley back to Louisiana (and not to LSU).

What I like to do is look at South Carolina's schedule, and take what I know about USC, past and present, and divide it into three categories - Wins, Losses, and Flex. In some years (like last year), the Flex can contain a lot of games. This year is no different.

WINS

The Gamecocks should have no problem with East Carolina, UAB, Kentucky or Wofford. Of those, the Pirates are the most intriguing. Yes, they lost quarterback Dominique Davis among 11 lost starters, but the offensive system remains the same. They like to throw, they like to throw quickly after the snap, and as long as some players return (seven do, on offense), the system can still flourish. I just don't think it will be nearly as effective as it was under Davis. USC's secondary may have a time keeping up with it, but the Gamecocks put up 56 points against the Pirates' defense last year and should be able to easily "out-talent" them on offense.

Wofford is another one that's always tricky, always close, but is a win. The Terriers run that triple-option that is a headache to stop, but again, USC should be able to run past their defense. The defense will be kept on the field - Wofford does nothing on offense quickly - but as long as USC's offense can keep carving up the defense, there should be no problems.

UAB and Kentucky should be nothing to worry about. UAB is the standard schedule-filler and the Wildcats, again, are going to be wretched. The biggest story for them this season is to see if they cut ties with Joker Phillips after three seasons and look for somebody else - I understand some cat named Petrino is available.

LOSSES

LSU and Arkansas. The Gamecocks play the Tigers on the road, again a national-title contender, even without Tyrann Mathieu. They just roll another high-school All-American into the spot and here they come. USC does stand to be the Tigers' first real test - road games at Auburn and Florida shouldn't be a problem - and if LSU can find a fluid offensive attack, it will be rolling by the time the Gamecocks get to Baton Rouge. USC's defense will be heavily relied on, and I have no doubt the game will be close. But in close games, football savant Les Miles always has another trick under that massive cap, and they never do anything but win ballgames.

As for the Razorbacks, yeah, it's a new coach (John L. Smith), but the same personnel. The Gamecocks have been ripped by Arkansas for three straight years and this season should make it four. Tyler Wilson proved last year that he could still throw and complete passes on his way to the ground or while being tackled, and the Hogs' collection of skill players has only gotten better with the re-addition of Knile Davis. Smith has been known to make some curious decisions in the fourth quarter, but Arkansas shouldn't suffer if he makes one in Columbia.

FLEX

Six games accounted for, six games remain. Let's take them one at a time, shall we?

Vanderbilt
It's easy to say "It's still Vanderbilt," but Vanderbilt is suddenly not an automatic win anymore. Yes, USC has more talent. Yes, I believe that USC will win. No, I can't say the Gamecocks will definitely win. James Franklin has his boys believing, and with a fired-up crowd, at night, on ESPN … it's just a ticklish situation. Who knows what happens if the Commodores get ahead right away? Will USC's young secondary be able to contain Jordan Rodgers, who it mostly didn't see last year? Really tough to say what will happen, especially because USC only beat a much-less heralded Vanderbilt team last year 21-3 and had to overcome four interceptions and a defensive touchdown to do it.

Missouri
Who knows what will happen in the Tigers' first year in the league? It benefits USC that the game is at home and it benefits USC that Mizzou was 8-5 last year. But they have the other James Franklin and they have Dorial Green-Beckham. There's no historical basis for it (the Independence Bowl was SO 2005) so it's really hard to say. Who knows?

Georgia
Sure, losing Isaiah Crowell was a blow, but that the Bulldogs were willing to part that easily with him tells me that they're fully confident in who they have behind him. Georgia still has Aaron Murray, and the way that guy played at the end of last year's game told me all I need to know about his ability to win big games. Mostly, as we've all seen every year, stats and such go out the window when these two meet. It always comes down to some strange play - Melvin Ingram doing what he did last year, or that ESPN staple of David Pollack stripping Corey Jenkins.

Florida
It is on the road, and I'm not terribly impressed by who Florida returns. The reason it's not in the "Win" column to me is because it's on the road and because USC has beaten the Gators two years straight. Being around this program for a while, lengthy winning streaks over SEC opponents (outside Vanderbilt and Kentucky) don't happen a lot. Really, the talent that Florida has pales to what USC has. Re-thinking this even as it's published.

Tennessee
Another one I'm re-thinking. It's at home. UT just lost its best playmaker. The Gamecocks should roll in this one. But the Vols do have Tyler Bray, and they also have Cordarrelle Patterson. That guy is the truth. I saw him in high school and he was some kind of great athlete. He dunked over Jadeveon Clowney, and almost single-handedly lifted Northwestern basketball (not exactly what you'd call a power) to the Upper State championship game while advancing to the championship game in football. Based on that, it's very silly to base a projection, but if he does what I think he's going to do, the Vols will have some firepower.

Clemson
The Gamecocks have certainly had no trouble with the Tigers for the past three years, and I don't think they will this year. It is on the road, but that's not the reason I'm thinking it's too close to call. That reason is simply, The Streak. It's got to end sometime. USC folks haven't seen this run of success over Clemson in over 40 years. Now, Clemson has great skill players and will again challenge for the ACC crown, but from what I'm reading in camp reports, its offensive line is not good. USC pushed it around last year and that shouldn't change this year. I was very, very close to counting this as a win, but it's a rivalry game. Like Georgia, one never knows what will happen.

Of course, it's been an awful lot more than just one play the last three years. It's been complete and total domination. See you in Nashville.



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