1. So. Clowney. What the hell?
I have mixed feelings about the Clowney situation. On the one hand, anyone who understands football should understand why his numbers are down. Teams are scheming around him; on passing plays, he's generally double-teamed, chipped by a back, or the QB rolls out to the other side of the field. On runs, teams generally run the other way. Despite the fact that opposing offenses largely scheme to limit his impact, he still makes plays. This draft analysis gives a good rundown of Clowney's continued impact. You have to look below the obvious statistics.
That said, the situation over the weekend is concerning. Spurrier and Clowney have since explained the incident as Clowney having a legitimate injury but having communicated poorly with the staff, but Spurrier's initial implication that Clowney might be choosing to sit out rather than having a serious injury bugs me. Just seems like there must be some kind of fire there. Maybe Spurrier, as he has since said, was frustrated. Or maybe he was speaking from the heart at first, and the rest has been damage control. Clowney is reportedly going to play if possible this weekend, and I'll admit I'm curious to see if he does, and whether he has a huge impact if so. That would definitely inspire more confidence from where I'm sitting.
2. Connor Shaw has had a pretty miserable time against Arkansas over his career, but he's not a BAD quarterback. When he was injured a couple of weeks ago it seemed to be a good thing that he would likely be out against Arkansas. Following getting worked by another backup in Florida's Tyler Murphy, though, we are all second guessing that feeling. Should Hog fans be disappointed that Shaw is answering the bell, or is Dylan Thompson someone who could make the Razorbacks pay?
Some consider Thompson a better downfield passer, whereas Shaw is known for beating opponents with his legs. Given that Arkansas struggles against the pass but is stout against the run, that might suggest that Thompson would be more effective against Arkansas. However, Shaw has improved dramatically passing the ball. His major weaknesses used to be neglecting to go through his reads, not getting rid of the ball quickly enough, and having a run-first mentality when his first option wasn't clearly open. This year, he goes through progressions quickly and methodically, distributes the ball better, keeps his eyes downfield if he does leave the pocket. He can still beat you with his legs, but he's the total package now. There's no question in my mind that he has a decided lead over Thompson on the depth chart. He's playing better than Thompson in all phases. Barring a really poor performance out of the gate, he'll get the lion's share of the snaps against the Hogs.
3. Mike Davis is a load. He's, uh, pretty fast, too. How will the Gamecocks try to utilize him, and if you were an opposing coach, how would you try to stop him?
Like Shaw, Davis has improved dramatically since last year. He's arguably playing as well as Marcus Lattimore ever did. The two have different styles, though; if Lattimore relied on vision, balance, and the ability to break tackles, Davis, while certainly no slouch in any of those regards, shows his best stuff with his violent, lightning-quick cuts, as well as with breakaway speed that Lattimore didn't have. Davis has also really improved in the passing game since a year ago; that was one of the question marks with him coming in, but he's done well in pass protection, and I don't recall any drops so far. What's made him even more effective is that he's running behind what's clearly the best offensive line Spurrier has had at USC.
As far as stopping him goes, it's a tall order. If this were last year, I would say scheme aggressively against the run by stacking the box. Dare Shaw to beat you through the air. The problem with that approach is that this year, Shaw is carving opponents up through the air in a way that he didn't in the past. The Gamecocks' offense is extremely balanced this year, with excellent production from all positions. I will say that Arkansas will provide a good test, as the Hogs may have the best defensive front we've seen yet.
4 Arkansas is going to try to run the ball, especially early, and especially as long as the game is close. Assuming Clowney is a non-factor, how does the rest of the Carolina defensive line shape up?
The Carolina defensive tackles are very good. Kelcy Quarles is a very solid player who has a good shot at playing on Sundays, while his counterpart J.T. Surratt has also looked good and seems to be coming along quickly. End is a different story. Obviously, if Clowney plays, we'll have one excellent end on the field. However, his counterpart, Chaz Sutton, has been a huge disappointment after showing promise as a backup the past two years. He's particularly poor against the run, and if I were Arkansas, I'd run straight at him repeatedly, which is of course what Arkansas will do if Clowney is playing. Really, the biggest travesty on this year's defense is that with teams running away from Clowney every play, Sutton hasn't been able to make more plays. The third end is Darius English, a good speed rusher but seriously undersized and a liability against the run. Gerald Dixon has also been playing more lately and has made some nice hustle plays; he may be due for more time over Sutton and English. In any event, Carolina has been better against the run than against the past, but certainly, unless Carolina completely manhandles your offensive line, I could see Arkansas running the ball with at least some success.
5 What is one thing that may happen Saturday that would completely surprise Arkansas fans while being completely unsurprising to South Carolina fans?
I've already spoken to it; don't be surprised if Shaw looks comparable to the best QBs in the SEC. He's not getting a ton of attention for it because Carolina fell behind Georgia in the standings so early and hasn't played any big-name opponents since then, and most media attention on Carolina right now is fixated on Clowney. However, Shaw is playing amazing football, and if he plays Saturday like he has so far this year, he won't look like a significant step down from some of the great QBs you guys will see in the SEC West.
6 Give us an idea how you feel the game will play out Saturday, with a winner and score if you don't mind.
I feel this is a good matchup for Carolina. I think our offense will be able to move the ball, and while our defense has been struggling at times, our strength is against the run, which is what Arkansas does best. While Arkansas has some weapons on offense and should be able to move the ball at times, I feel confident that Carolina will move the ball very well for the entire game. I like Carolina to win as long as (1) we don't turn the ball over on special teams (huge problem for us this year), (2) we score TDs instead of field goals, and (3) Arkansas doesn't discover a much better passing game than it's had throughout the year. I'll take Carolina by 7.
7. Finally, the most important question of all: tomato, mustard, or vinegar? Which base for the one barbecue sauce for the rest of your life?
Mustard, of course. I wouldn't be a Carolina man if I said otherwise. Vinegar and pepper would be a distant second.