There's Value in Underachieving Kentucky at South Carolina

Rainman M.

Friday, September 15, 2017 4:47 AM UTC

Friday, Sep. 15, 2017 4:47 AM UTC

Kentucky (2-0) opens up SEC play in its first true road test at South Carolina (2-0) this Saturday at 7:30 PM ET. The Gamecocks opened as 7.5 point favorites but that number is down to 7 or even 6. The total has dropped from 54.5 to 50.5 or 51.

Kentucky vs. South Carolina

A glance at recent scores gives a deceiving picture. Last week, South Carolina blew out Missouri 31-13. However, Missouri amassed more total yards (423-359). South Carolina thus seems to have dominated offensively and defensively, but they did not. South Carolina is 2-0 because of their ability to achieve timely turnovers and big plays. The pedestrian statistics of their offense is worrisome and they still have major questions to resolve on defense.

Kentucky was likely looking ahead to this match-up as they fell behind by double digits at home against the FCS's Eastern Kentucky. They won 27-16 but never approached the 32.5 point spread. They have underperformed against sub-par competition, while still pulling out wins. Expect the best that a motivated Kentucky has to offer against conference rival South Carolina.

Kentucky's offense relies above all on its rushing attack, led by Benny Snell. Snell is a sophomore but a rising superstar because of his ability to incorporate his speed into a power running style that enables him to achieve big plays. He is tough and does not go down on first contact. He even showed his competitive fire on social media, when he publicly burned a magazine that predicted a poor season record for Kentucky. 

The second-team All SEC Snell enjoys the protection of the SEC's possibly best offensive line, which returns 68 starts from three seniors and a junior. A semifinalist for the Jon Moore Award, given to the nation's best offensive line, Kentucky's offensive line boasts high-quality depth and experience. Dual-threat quarterback Stephen Johnson led Kentucky's rally last week. He creates a balanced offensive attack with his improvement in the intermediate passing game, while also posing a threat with his legs.

Last season, South Carolina's pass defense comprised its strength. It was particularly effective against the deep pass, meaning that Johnson will be able to make use of his improved ability to execute shorter pass plays. Likewise, South Carolina relied to a relative degree on creating turnovers. Johnson, since he began as Kentucky's starting quarterback last season, has made significant strides in limiting his fumbles. Overall, Kentucky has allowed only one turnover so far this season and is building off of its improvement in this area in the second half of last season.

South Carolina's largest defensive problem continues to be the rush defense, which happens to be Kentucky's strength on offense. South Carolina returns only three scholarship players at linebacker. The defensive line boasts a rising superstar in DJ Wonnum, but will still miss Darius English, their defensive end who provided 9 sacks for a still anemic pass rush. The Gamecocks struggled to create havoc in the backfield against opposing defenses and their thinness at linebacker as well as the quality of their current defensive line without English are worrisome. While South Carolina returns its entire secondary, Kentucky's rush attack should produce plenty of points.

South Carolina does boast impressive offensive talent.  The most notable name is Deebo Samuel, who has already returned two kickoffs for touchdowns this season. Kentucky struggled last week in special teams coverage and will need to prepare extra hard for Samuel. Samuel is also a prolific pass catcher and can utilize his versatility to amass rushing yards as well. 

Samuel is the kind of playmaker that quarterback Jake Bentley really needs. Bentley, a sophomore, is a raw talent with upside. He is a tough competitor who is most known for leading South Carolina's gritty comeback in their bowl game against South Florida. He has a very capable deep ball and is poised under pressure while having the intelligence to identify blitzing linebackers. Nonetheless, he misses a surprising amount of open throws and needs to be more consistent with his accuracy in order to improve his team's offensive numbers.

The Verdict

The Wildcats can rely on a consistent offensive attack behind an elite running back and offensive line that can exploit South Carolina's thinness at linebacker and lack of quality on the defensive line. South Carolina, on the other hand, will struggle to obtain that kind of consistency against Kentucky. Even if Bentley can stop missing so many open throws, he lacks a proven or reliable support cast outside of Samuel. Although Kentucky's run defense is suspect, so is South Carolina's run game and blocking. Meanwhile, Kentucky's secondary boasts high-quality experience, depth and versatility. Expect a competitive SEC match-up. A look beyond the scoreboard indicates that South Carolina's line is inflated on our NCAAF Picks.

Free NCAAF Pick: Kentucky +7Best Line Offered: 5Dimes

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