South Carolina faces Auburn Saturday at 3:30 p.m. at Williams-Brice Stadium in the third SEC game of the season for the Gamecocks. USC is seeking to improve to 5-0 for the first time since 2001. Here are 10 key questions for the game:
1. Will Marcus Lattimore carry the ball more this week?: Hopefully. USC is a much better offensive football team when Lattimore carries it 25 to 30 times per game. Last week, he had just 20 attempts and 77 rushing yards in the win over Vanderbilt as Steve Spurrier sought to put the passing game on solid footing early (seven straight passes on USC's initial possession). The results, of course, speak for themselves. Lattimore leads the nation in rushing attempts per game (26.8), and for good reason. I understand the concern USC is better off with a balanced offense, but right now giving the ball to Lattimore is the best route for winning. Lattimore leads the SEC in rushing with an average of 152.8 yards per game, over 40 yards per game ahead of his nearest rival. He has also rushed for 30 first downs. Simply, USC needs to figure out a way to get Lattimore going early and mix in the passing game.
2. What is the biggest area of concern for the Gamecock offense?: The easy answer is the passing attack since Stephen Garcia is completing 54.7 percent (52-of-95) of his passes for 684 yards. But the correct answer is turnovers. And I'm not just talking about Garcia's seven interceptions. USC has committed a league-high 11 turnovers through four games, three miscues in the red zone. That's almost three turnovers per game, far too many. Thankfully, because the defense has adopted a 'big play' mentality (12 takeaways), USC is plus-one in turnover margin. But Auburn has turned the ball over just three times (matching the fewest in the SEC) in four games, so taking the ball away might prove difficult. Thus, the USC offense must avoid turnovers to have a chance to win.
3. Will Damiere Byrd bring a new dimension to the USC offense?: Yes. Ever since the freshman was ruled ineligible (Steve Spurrier dislikes the word 'suspended') for four games by the NCAA, the USC coaches have eyed the Auburn game as an opportunity to firmly establish the deep vertical passing game Spurrier adores. Byrd should be able to stretch defenses with his blazing speed, thus opening up the medium-size routes for Alshon Jeffery and some of the other taller receivers. Look for USC to throw the ball deep to the sure-handed Byrd at least two or three times in the first quarter. Remember, Auburn has no video of Byrd playing in a game, so USC might be able to catch them by surprise.
4. Did Vanderbilt provide the blueprint on how to defend the USC offense?: Probably. Considering Vanderbilt held the USC offense to 14 points, don't be surprised if Auburn mimics the defensive game plan utilized by the Commodores last week. Until USC proves they can move the football by throwing it, the Tigers will likely stack the box with eight defenders and line up in one-on-one coverage on the wide receivers. But USC still needs to keep giving the ball to Lattimore, because USC has proven they are not a throw-the-ball-on every-down type team. If they do that, they will surely loss. USC still ran the ball 40 times against Vanderbilt, which has a better and more experienced front seven than Auburn.
5. Is Auburn's defense really as bad as the statistics indicate?: Lattimore insists the Auburn defense isn't playing as badly as all those last-place rankings in the SEC indicate. But as coaches are fond of saying, it is what it is. Auburn's first three opponents (Utah State, Mississippi State and Clemson) shredded the Tigers' defense for 265.7 rushing yards per game. Even the anemic Florida Atlantic offense found a way to move the football with 307 offensive yards and 20 first downs in last week's game. Because of Auburn's struggles stopping the run, opponents are rushing the ball 59 percent (200 of 339 snaps) of the time against the Tigers' defense. But the Tigers aren't stopping anyone through the air, either. When you're last in the SEC in every major defensive category, there is something going on.
6. Who is the most dangerous offensive player for Auburn?: Without question, it's running back Michael Dyer. He put together back-to-back 150-yard games against Mississippi State and Clemson, averaging 8.8 yards per carry in those two outings. However, he fell back to 68 yards on 14 carries against Florida Atlantic last weekend. Still, Dyer is a threat to take it to the house every time he touches the football. He had a career-long 52-yard TD burst against Clemson. Dyer hasn't received the notoriety Marcus Lattimore has because he has had to share carries with Onterio McCalebb (810 rushing yards in 2010) over the last two seasons. In addition, Dyer is not a pass-catching threat like Lattimore is. Through four games, Dyer has zero catches.
7. What's the injury situation for both teams?: USC is fairly healthy with only three players ailing right now - RB Kenny Miles (wrist/hand), WR Jason Barnes (hamstring) and DB Akeem Auguste (foot). Miles has practiced this week and is day-to-day. Auburn, meanwhile, will miss WR/KR Trovon Reed, who is out with a shoulder injury. Reed is Auburn's second-leading receiver (13 catches) and the primary punt returner. Quan Bray is set to step in at both receiver and punt returner. CB Chris Davis is day-to-day after missing the FAU game. TE Phillip Lutzenkirchen missed the FAU game with an injury, but should be healthy enough to play.
8. Which team has the edge in the kicking game?: Auburn probably has a slight edge. Placekicker Cody Parkey has 15 touchbacks in 26 kickoffs, while Jay Wooten has three touchbacks in 25 kickoffs. Parkey is also 6-for-7 on field goals, while Wooten is 2-for-3. In the return department, Tre Mason of Auburn is averaging 29.4 yards on 14 kickoff returns. Bruce Ellington has returned nine kickoffs for an average of 22.8 yards per return. Auburn has a slight edge in punting as well. In order to have any chance to win, Auburn must exploit any advantage they have in the kicking game. If USC is able to keep the numbers even on special teams, they should win.
9. Will USC be motivated by their two losses to Auburn in 2010?: Probably. More than one player this week talked about Auburn "embarrassing" USC in last year's SEC championship game. Getting another crack at the Tigers might be exactly what the Gamecocks need. But here's another stat that should capture USC's attention - they have never beaten Auburn since joining the SEC. USC is 0-6 since 1992. If that's not enough to keep the Gamecocks motivated, nothing will.
10. What will the USC defense do for an encore?: They might not be able to dominate the Auburn offense to the same extent as Vanderbilt last week because the Auburn offense has more weapons such as Dyer and QB Barrett Trotter (61 percent completion rate), but the USC defensive line should again have their way with Auburn's rebuilt offensive line. Just like Auburn will focus their efforts on stopping Lattimore, the 5-foot-9, 210-pound Dyer should be USC's top target on defense. Stop him and you should make Auburn one-dimensional. The Tigers will be without their No. 2 receiver, so it's questionable if Auburn will be successful just throwing the ball. If that happens, the USC pass rush should be relentless.