I have just spent the last six hours watching SEC football. I feel filthy. I need a shower. But you need content so here's a little bit of stuff I've learned about Michigan's Outback opponent.
The Most SEC Team Ever
South Carolina is not just an SEC team, they are the most SEC team ever, so SEC in fact that they're coached by one Steve Spurrier. They're major over-signers, massively talented, and minimally sane. A third came from a JUCO or prep school—Fork Union Military Academy is Spurrier's
rubber-stamping [EDIT: I can't support this, see comments] prep of choice though Georgia Military or Hargrave it's all the same. They're the reason you can't just say "SEC West" when describing the epicenter of NCAA rot with any kind of geographic specificity. In good-guy/bad-guy cartoon world, they're evil's comic relief henchman who starts every sentence with "Duuuhhhh, hey boss…"
Arkansas is Bebop, SC is Rocksteady.
The Most SEC Recruiting Ever:
SC has had a lot of attrition, to put it mildly. Of the 127 players to commit to Spurrier from 2008 through this season, 39 percent (50 players) are not on today's roster. Another five came back after a year of prep school. That's two dismissals, three early NFL entries, eight graduates (six JUCOs, two 2008 non-redshirts), four quits, two medicals, two unrenewed fifths, 14 transfers, and 15 non-qualifiers (one of whom made it back to FBS w/ Arizona).
Most of the transfers, as you might have expected, conveniently occurred under an over-signing scholarship crunch. Their 127 commits is just nine more than Michigan took over the same period, however M had a lot more scholarships available with massive attrition from small classes preceding the relevant years while SC's most egregious class was the 31 taken in '06. On the other hand the attrition wasn't so evenly managed as to not cause problems; as recently as 2011 their boards have had 'Never Forget'-levels of depth chart freaking out at cornerback. Their 2009 class is down to 11 from 29. With the new scholarship limits and attrition remaining very high (seven of those transfers happened this year), Spurrier has been doing it more with JUCOs lately, offering them scholarships on an availability basis. Things like grayshirting Matt Coffee because too many kids qualified seem to have been replaced with problems like "oh god we're out of linebackers!"
That said they've pulled in a lot of talent. Star chart (Rivals) of their current roster vs. Michigan's:
The five-stars are Lattimore and Clowney, and both were considered among the best overall recruits those years. Lattimore's season is over after one of those leg injuries you cannot unsee after seeing (case example: Tyrell Dortch vs. Wisconsin). Clowney is a freak.
Because he's hard not to watch I spent a good couple of drives focusing on Clowney, who of all the great DEs Lewan has gone up against is probably still the best. Clowney is really quick off the snap, as slippery as a defensive back, and so quick with his hands it is rare to see anybody get inside on him. Added this year, his swim move made every tackle he faced look ridiculous. Georgia held him like whoa, Florida optioned him off most of the game, and Arkansas mostly ran away from him or planned quick patterns. One time Florida tried to block down on him on a sweep and Clowney shot into the backfield so fast he arrived with the pitch.
SC tried to counter by doing some funny things, stunting Clowney around the formation or dropping him into coverage. At the latter he wasn't very effective; a couple of screens he should have blown up ended up going right by him. Optioning wasn't all that effective either, since Clowney often showed the agility to reroute and make the play anyway. Only teams with fast running backs made that work, and with Toussaint out this doesn't bode so well for Michigan barring a sudden emergence from Hayes or something.
You can try to put a tight end out there to double him but then this happens:
Neither is he an awesome tackler—more often he would just get to the quarterback so fast or break the pocket so badly that another guy got to clean up. Even our pair of escape artists is small solace; Michigan's best hope is that Lewan and Schofield can handle him. What worries me here is that Gardner was most effective against Northwestern and Minnesota thanks to long, leisurely days in the pocket; those won't exist unless we solve Clowney.
The Most SEC Offense Ever:
The first thing you notice while watching non-professional SEC football is the stupid. I went in expecting to blow up every stereotype about SEC speed versus Big Ten brains only to keep having those same stereotypes confirmed, especially with their offensive line.
Mattison is going to have some fun here guys. If you come at them straight up South Carolina's line can stand in the way as well as anybody; they've got quick feet, large bodies, and don't seem to be asked to do many non-simple things. As soon as things do get not-simple it's quarterback sacky hour. Stunts work, delayed blitzes work better, and I can't wait to see them try to react to Michigan's Okie package. The tackles Corey Robinson (6'8/337 lbs./RS So) and Brandon Shell (6'6/331 lbs/RS Fr) are big and young. Robinson has good footwork and is massive but I also saw him take a lot of plays off. The freshman right tackle will be really good one day; for now he's prone to lots of mistakes. The interior OL is older, smaller, and yet even more prone to mistakes—the right guard Ronald Patrick (#67) in particular seemed to miss a heck of a lot of blitzes.
The dumb very much does not extend to the coaches. Spurrier's old "Fun and Gun" offense is mostly gone, replaced with a base shotgun, spread stuff, options, zone reads, and wide receiver screens. What hasn't changed is all the cheating that Spurrier opponents have long complained about. SC has a tendency to come out in a wedge formation (I never saw them get called for it, though the tackles are clearly lining up a yard or more off the LOS) on passing downs. I also can't remember ever seeing so many pick routes and offensive holds to get their receivers open. When they get going Spurrier will speed up the tempo however they usually get set with about 17 or so seconds on the clock.
Quarterback Stephen Garcia is gone, but his hometown is Tampa and that's plenty of excuse to dig up every Stephen Garcia thing this week. Actual Gamecocks QB Conner Shaw was out (sprained foot) for the Clemson game but is expected to be back under center for the Outback bowl. The junior doesn't have the breakaway speed of Braxton Miller or Taylor Martinez, but Shaw definitely qualifies as a dual-threat by matching either for acceleration, and usually his third read is to scramble. The leaky line has made Shaw overly jittery in the pocket; he will move around a lot and get 10 yards if you break contain; if you don't he'll hold onto it too long and drive SC fans nuts. When he's got time to set and throw Shaw will put it on the money, however he's plenty liable to run around and toss something off his back foot even when he doesn't have to, and at this he's less accurate than he thinks he is.
The effective play of Dylan Thompson (more of a drop-back) against Clemson has started a bit of QB controversy, though nobody outside of South Carolina seems to think this is a thing (see: Denard vs. Gardner).
The blitzes they mostly minimized before with play action to Lattimore (no longer an option) and a dangerous QB draw it seems Shaw is allowed to call at the line:
The receivers are like our receivers—short but capable of whoa. Ace Sanders (#1) is the slot "weapon" who we'll come back to when talking about special teams. Nick Jones, an even tinier dude, is nominally the 2nd receiver. The deep threat is Damiere Byrd (#3); at 5'9 a giant among these men, Byrd is a Gallon-like player who made a ridiculous catch against Georgia. Bruce Ellington is the Dileo of the bunch. Dudes over 6 feet are extant but mostly freshmen; when bigosity is called for they go to the tight ends. The senior and better blocker is #87 Justice Cunningham (6'4/264), though Cunningham's been a receiver option plenty (22 catches for 287 yards this season). Sophomore Rory "Buster" Anderson (6'5/218/#81) caught 21 passes for 452 yards and 8 TDs in his first two seasons. There's a freshman they use sometimes here too.
The Most SEC Defense Ever
They're a base 4-3 that goes to a nickel against spread-ish teams. That nickel ends up looking a lot like a 3-3-5 because they'll split Clowney off into a 9-tech:
If you line up in a I-form on an obvious running down they will stack the line and creep up like woah—expect to want to kill Borges at least once when he runs Vincent Smith into that.
Clowney you've heard of, but he's not all they've got. The rest of the defensive front are eh—the other end is a Pat Massey-ian 6'8 except more athletic than Massey—but the DTs are active and vicious. They're big dudes with active hands who don't provide much in the way of pass rush except to shove your center back a few yards and make things even messier once Clowney begins breaking things.
The swing player is DeVonte Holloman, who plays Spur, the roving LB-safety spot that Michigan had during our 3-3-5 days—in SC's defense it's basically strong safety or nickel back depending on formation, though Holloman is liable to line up anywhere. Free safety D.J. Swearinger is a Kovacsian dude who seems to get to the ball quickly—I'm not sure why there isn't more hype for him. It's kind of hard to get a read on anyone else since Clowney forces the play so often that the linebackers are making tackles on dumpoffs more than anything.
The senior middle linebacker Reggie Bowens (#47) is good; he doesn't read plays that quickly but he's great at staying off of blocks and picking through trash to get to a ball carrier, and Bowens is big enough that when he arrives the RB's momentum immediately stops. The other guys tend to stand around a lot. Cooper just tore his ACL and SC blogs seem to agree that one or two 2013 recruits will start (if they can recruit any—that so far has been a disaster); backups are nonexistent.
At corner I got to see why Jimmy Legree lost his job when Akeem Auguste returned (Legree turned several plays into major gainers by going for a strip), but not much else. Everything just pivots around Clowney all the time.
The recipe here seems to be creativity. If you play them straight-up it's going to be just another Clowney show but Florida did a whole bunch of interesting things and ended up moving the ball enough to win by a lot. If Michigan can utilize our talent in the backfield to probe the weakside behind Clowney there's space here to put up points.
The Most SEC Special Teams Ever
Ace Sanders averages a bazillion per return, is described as "nifty" and never ever calls for a fair catch. Too bad we can't take advantage of that. Their punters seem to have little in the way of leg, which is scary if you imagine Gallon having to run up 20 yards to make a fair catch amongst a sea of coverage all the time. This would be a good time to deploy Dileo as short returner.