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South Carolina’s Been Terrible On Defense, And Georgia Is Looming

Despite losing defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who was picked first overall in the NFL Draft this past spring, 2014 was shaping up to be one of the better seasons of Steve Spurrier’s tenure as South Carolina’s Head Ball Coach. The Gamecocks entered August ranked seventh in ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) — their highest preseason placement since FPI data became available in 2005 — and according to the FPI, they also had the SEC’s second-highest probability of going undefeated in conference play (trailing only Alabama).

But we’re less than a month into the schedule, and South Carolina has dropped to 20th in the FPI rankings following a brutal 52-28 loss to Texas A&M in its opener (so much for winning out in the SEC) and an underwhelming 10-point home win over East Carolina. Heading into Saturday’s clash against a suddenly dominant Georgia squad, South Carolina finds itself in danger of dropping out of the AP Top 25 for the first time since the preseason of 2010. Suffice to say, things haven’t gone according to plan for Spurrier and the Gamecocks.

South Carolina’s strength was supposed to be its offense, and on that side of the ball, it has only mildly disappointed. The 2014 Gamecocks have averaged 437 yards per game (YPG) of total offense thus far (they averaged 452 in 2013), ranking 10th in schedule-adjusted yards per play and 13th in FPI offense. And — as has been customary of Spurrier’s teams in recent seasons — the 2014 Gamecocks are breaking the 30-points-per-game barrier.

But South Carolina has struggled defensively. Last week, it allowed 453 total yards to East Carolina (a team against whom an average FBS school would have allowed 386 YPG a year ago), and were completely shredded for 52 points and 680 yards in their blowout loss to Texas A&M. Among FBS teams, only Central Florida and Bowling Green have allowed more passing yards per game this season, and only 11 teams have yielded more points per game.

Replacing Clowney up front has been difficult. Although the talented pass-rusher notched only three sacks in an injury-plagued 2013 campaign, the Gamecocks as a whole had 25, with Clowney’s ability to draw double- and triple-teams helping now-departed DT Kelcy Quarles amass 9.5 sacks. (Two years ago, with Clowney at full strength, South Carolina ranked sixth nationally with 43 sacks.) Without Clowney or Quarles in 2014, the Gamecocks have generated just one sack in two games, and the lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks has played a big role in the team’s ghastly pass defense numbers.

Georgia seems poised to add to South Carolina’s defensive misery. The Bulldogs rank ninth among FBS teams in offensive FPI and are coming off a win against Clemson in which they racked up 45 points, with an incredible 328 yards and five touchdowns on the ground. While the Gamecocks’ defense has been most porous against the pass, they’ve also allowed the nation’s 20th-highest yards per carry average in the season’s early going; East Carolina picked up 6.3 YPC against them a week ago. The prospect of having to stop Georgia’s Todd Gurley, who averaged a staggering 13.2 YPC (198 yards on only 15 carries) against Clemson, can’t be appealing to Gamecocks defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward.

Now, it’s unlikely South Carolina’s defense is truly as bad as it showed in the Texas A&M game, and by the same token, Georgia probably won’t crack 300 rushing yards on a routine basis. Las Vegas bookmakers had Georgia as six-point road favorites, implying roughly a 10-point difference between the teams on a neutral field — not the 31-point difference that would be implied by this year’s results alone. So despite the stark contrast between the early returns for each team, this isn’t a one-sided battle. And if South Carolina can pull off the upset, its schedule will ease up a bit: It gets Vanderbilt, Missouri (at home), Kentucky and Furman before mighty Auburn looms Oct. 25.

But the Gamecocks need to show progress (particularly on defense) by giving Georgia a worthy fight. Otherwise, a season that began with such promise could be derailed after having scarcely begun.

Neil Paine was the acting sports editor at FiveThirtyEight.