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South Carolina Defense: Improved Enough to Slow Clemson?

Its past strategic maladies have been rectified, but this defense still faces a matchup nightmare against Clemson’s offense.

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Will Muschamp leads an improved South Carolina team into Death Valley on Saturday in a matchup that is lopsided on paper and on film. Muschamp’s hiring still inspires plenty of jokes not only from Clemson outlets, but almost every corner of the college football world. While the country still chuckled under its collective breath, Muschamp seemingly turned the program around on the field or at least stopped the proverbial bleeding.

Despite the impression he was the last and only available candidate, Muschamp lobbied hard for the South Carolina coaching job not simply because he wanted another chance leading a SEC team again, but because he is actually a good fit. He’s a young, charismatic, whacky-yet-likable coach who can sell his vision to players and fans with low expectations. In fact, he’s everything they’ve always hated in Dabo Swinney. Muschamp was a risk, but far less risky than removing Swinney’s interim label 8 years ago. A year into his tenure, I can’t consider it outlandish for South Carolina to feel cautiously optimistic.

Of course, Muschamp is a defensive coach and still considered one of the best defensive minds in college football (due more to his pedigree than results to date, but the pedigree is so impressive that’s not meant to be underhanded). His primary responsibilities are to increase the talent level in Columbia and fix a strategically misguided defense under the previous regime. Moving away from the Lorenzo Ward’s eternally mismatched cover 3, Muschamp employs a blended 4-3 front with many 3-4 techniques (he’s from the Nick Saban coaching tree) in an effort to be truly flexible vs multiple offenses and create confusion at every possible opportunity.

Under Ward, South Carolina’s flex player was its “spur” linebacker/nickel, which created a flexible — yet flawed — hybrid 4-2-5. Under Muschamp, the flex player is the “Buck” defensive end Darius English, who will align as a 4-3 end, standup 3-4 OLB, or even a situational Mike linebacker. It is he who provides the flexibility and complexity to the Muschamp defense, which can then confuse an offense while maintaining the flexibility to defend multiple offenses.

A hybrid 3-4 look in base 4-3 personnel. Buck DE Darius English is lined up at Mike linebacker.

On the backend, Muschamp is known for aggressive, lockdown man secondaries. He’s operated at a serious talent deficit in his defensive backfield this year, however, and has been loath to isolate his corners in straight man coverage; playing a lot of “bend but don’t break” soft zone to protect his undermanned secondary and usually only employing man coverage with a blitz in front of it; meant to force a quick pass before the corners are beaten.

A simple man under cover 1 Sam fire, not disguised, but effective because it matched a defensive end on the right guard.

Man cover 1 blitzes and cover 3 were so effective against Tenneesee because the Vols are so reliant upon the zone read and short passes. Muschamp took advantage of Tennessee’s one-dimensionality by attacking the mesh point on the zone read with linebacker blitzes in front of man cover 1, while a basic cover 3 provided the ability to put 8 in the box to defend the short pass and run since Tennessee has no viable downfield passing game.

If Clemson sees man cover 1 blitzes tomorrow, it means the zone read is working or Muschamp is gambling he can force a Clemson mistake or tackle for loss. It’s a low-risk/high-reward tactic against an offense like Tennessee, but could prove suicidal against Clemson’s wideouts, especially since Clemson usually employs max protection on its deep shots. More telling will be if Muschamp decides to try a simple 4 man rush cover 3, which would mean Clemson has found success on the ground and Muschamp thus has to load up against the run while inviting the deep ball.

It’s far more likely Clemson sees Muschamp align the way he did against Missouri’s spread, with a 6 man box and two deep safeties, which would of course provide an opening for the Clemson run game coming off its best rushing performance.

South Carolina showed a 6 man front and invited the run, but the nickel’s underneath zone actually created a 7 man box. Despite successfully disguising its adequate numbers to defend the run, the interior DL was still gashed and the safeties were too deep to provide support.

This is certainly how I hope South Carolina chooses to defend Clemson, since the chances of an easy victory largely hinge upon Clemson’s running game. Even against such soft coverage, Clemson has matchup advantages downfield in Mike Williams and Deon Cain, who burned South Carolina’s two deep look a few times last season. If the Clemson ground game can’t gain solid chunks against a 6 man front (unlikely in theory but an unfortunate possibility in reality), South Carolina will happily sit back and wait for Clemson to make its usual mistakes. Whereas if the run game finds holes like Mizzou did above, it will force Muschamp into more aggressive calls like he used successfully against Tennessee, but will expose his relative lack of talent and mismatches out wide.

Bottom Line

A year ago, South Carolina sat in soft man cover 2 and tried to take away the deep ball, allowing Gallman and Watson to destroy them on the ground when they weren’t fumbling. It was the poison they picked, and with the help of turnovers and defensive busts, the Gamecocks never allowed Clemson to separate. In 2016, it’s the same strategy I would choose to pull the upset against a Clemson team far less imposing on the ground and far more prone to mistakes than in 2015.

Clemson’s deep ball is just as deadly in 2016, and has finally begun to materialize here in the last few games. Yet the Clemson run games is a shell of its former self, and Muschamp would be wise to try and contain the run game with his front 7 without bringing his safeties down. Clemson holds plenty of matchup advantages in this game, but the greatest may be Clemson’s receivers downfield against South Carolina’s corners. It is paramount for South Carolina to keep its safeties back to protect its corners. Whether or not Muschamp can do so will depend on Gallman and the Clemson offensive line. If Muschamp can sit back and wait for the inevitable Clemson mistakes, this game can be a low-scoring, close affair. If Clemson finds balance and forces Muschamp into more aggressive cover 3 or cover 4, well, you’d make some money if you took Clemson to cover the spread.

Again, South Carolina is tremendously improved and Clemson is certainly flawed. It’s easy to buy into the “throw out the records” and “rivalry games are unpredictable” line of thinking, but that’s lazy coachspeak and actually not at all accurate to this rivalry where upsets have been few and far between. When I watch South Carolina, I see a young team which has either overachieved based on its talent level, or benefited from a soft schedule in the worst division in major college football. While the talent gap isn’t as wide as South Carolina fans tell themselves (Spurrier’s staff brought in decent talent but often failed to retain or develop it) there is indeed a huge gap in developed talent, which has more to do with the Clemson staff’s success than the South Carolina staff’s failures. There are huge mismatches between the Clemson DL vs the SC OL in addition to the aforementioned Clemson passing game vs South Carolina secondary.

Simply put, this game will come down to the number of Clemson mistakes. Even without a solid rushing performance, Clemson is good enough through the air to outpace anyone (provided the defense doesn’t have another Pitt game). South Carolina must hope for Clemson’s usual self-inflicted wounds or for turnovers; SC is very good at forcing them and Clemson is even better at giving them away. But without a +3 turnover margin or better, it’s difficult to see South Carolina doing more than merely covering the 24 point spread. Both teams are fired up for this one; its wishful/lazy thinking to say Clemson will overlook its most-hated rival when there is no margin for error in the postseason race. Clemson will come out sharp with a chance to separate early, fail to do so, but ultimately flex the muscles of its superior talent, depth, and coaching staff after halftime — finally putting away a grossly inferior opponent.

Clemson 48, South Carolina 17