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Depth Chart Blue Chip Analysis: Clemson at South Carolina Preview

The Tigers seek their fourth straight rivalry week victory.

Vanderbilt v South Carolina Photo by Todd Bennett/GettyImages

The Tigers (10-1) and Gamecocks (8-3) will meet for the 115th time on Saturday. The two Palmetto state teams enter the contest with a combined 18 wins, the most since 2013 (19).

Delving a little deeper reveals a less rosy picture though. While the Gamecocks are a respectable 8-3, their best wins have come against 7-4 NC State (wildly overrated) and 6-5 Missouri (before they were playing well). They have no wins over over teams currently ranked in the top 25, and the Tigers have just two.

Let’s take a look at the offenses, but first, our usual caveat.

We've divided the offense and the defense into three portions each. For the offense, the starting QB, the starting O-line, and the two-deep for the remaining skill positions (WR, TE, RB) are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall offense rating. Similarly on defense, the two-deep at D-line, linebacker, and in the secondary are each weighted to represent one-third of the overall defense rating, regardless of scheme.

This shouldn’t have to be said, but there are always players who over-perform their original star rating (e.g., Hunter Renfrow, Eric Dungey) as well as those who underperform their star ratings. Additionally, there are occasions where the less talented team wins (e.g., 2017 Clemson v. Syracuse), but there are exponentially more examples where the more talented team wins (e.g., 2009-2017 Clemson vs. Wake Forest). As such, this is only one portion of the analysis we will publish on the upcoming game, but we hope it’s an especially informative one.

Notes specific to this analysis:

  • The Gamecocks did not provide a full two-deep depth chart. They only shared their starters. As a result, we relied on to build their depth chart, but there are several positions without a unique back-up.
  • Five-star AJ Terrell has returned to the two-deep depth chart, bumping up Clemson’s average ratings.
  • Four-star Nyles Pickney has joined the two-deep depth chart for the first time, giving the Tigers another boost.
  • White lines in charts reflect where South Carolina’s ratings would be if blank backup spots on the Gamecocks depth chart are filled with two-star players.

The Gamecocks actually have some pretty respectable talent here. As much as we laugh at their expense (losing to the Citadel was so bad), Muschamp has recruited relatively well. Even with Deebo Samuel out with a leg injury, they have several four-star wide receivers (Bryan Edwards, OrTre Smith, and Shi Smith). Take a look at what Bryan Edwards did on this reception.

The irony of this impressive highlight is that is comes from a close contest against Louisiana Tech. While they have a handful of talented players, they lack depth and their offense has barely been able to muster a squawk this season. They currently rank 104th in FBS in total offense with just 352 yards per game. The S&P+ is slightly more kind, ranking their offense 77th nationally.

In putting together this analysis, I expected to QB Jake Bentley’s passing numbers jump off the screen when comparing to Kelly Bryant, who may not even be the best passer on his own team (he’s not), but they did not. In 34 more pass attempts, Bentley only has 275 more yards and 5 more TDs, but also has 4 more INTs, 536 fewer rushing yards, four fewer rushing TDs.

For all the inconsistency with Clemson’s offense, it is still ranked 26th in yards per game (457 YPG). Where the Tigers are so much better than the Cocks is in establishing the run. Clemson averages 5.2 YPC while South Carolina struggles to the tune of just 4.1 YPC.

Clemson has the 14th ranked rushing defense. If Dexter Lawrence can return from injury (and even if he can’t), the Tigers will try (and likely succeed) to make the Gamecocks try to beat them through the air. With Rico Dowdle out, AJ Turner is their primary RB. He did a number on UF, but was slowed by UGA, a team more similar to Clemson. When teams can’t establish the run against Clemson, the pass rush becomes devastating.

The Cocks rank 85th in sacks allowed with 25 while the Tigers are second in sacks per game with 3.55, even after playing two triple-option teams (GT and the Citadel). The Tigers want to be in position to bring the pressure and be aggressive. The Cocks best options to avoid that may be quick passes to star TE Hayden Hurst and creativity in the running game. This is the strategy that brought NC State success, however Clemson is much healthier in the secondary now.

The Cocks have a handful of very talented players on defense too. Of Clemson’s opponents, only Auburn and FSU have a clear talent advantage over the Midland Poultry. Skai Moore is the name folks know. DE D.J. Wonnum is another player to watch. He has 6 sacks on the season.

South Carolina is solid against the run, ranking 23rd in S&P+ rush defense, but they have some issues with their pass defense. They rank 57th in S&P+ pass defense and 72nd in passing yards allowed. Ryan Finley (NCSU) threw for 415 yards against them! They allow nearly 50 more passing yards per game than Clemson and yet have avoided passing-oriented attacks like Louisville, Syracuse, and Wake Forest (this is the greatest Wake Forest offense in their history based on points scored).

The Palmetto Bowl is the 7:30pm ESPN game. The atmosphere will be loud and raucous. The Tigers are used to playing huge road night games so I don’t expect that to be a problem, but the Tigers’ offense is only okay. This isn’t going to be another 56-7 demolition.

While the Cocks W-L record is fools gold, they have a handful of talented players on both sides of the ball. They’re a bit thin from injury and a general lack of depth, but if the Tigers don’t take them seriously, they are capable of defending their home turf. I love this matchup though. The Cocks have a weak offense which is going to struggle to move the ball. Meanwhile, their weakness against the passing game gives Kelly Bryant a golden opportunity to elevate his game entering postseason play.

Kelly Bryant has only passed for 200+ against three FBS opponents (GT, WF, UL). South Carolina allows 223 passing yards on average. Kelly Bryant worked on his mechanics after missing open receivers against FSU. He left some throws short against the Citadel, but generally looked better. This is a great barometer game for him. If he can take his passing game to the next level, this team can win another National Championship. If not, I don’t believe they can muscle their way to the trophy Alabama-style.

The Gamecocks are 2-3 in games where they don’t score 21 points. Their defense may be ahead of their offense, but it can’t be expected to carry them the way Clemson’s defense did in wins over Auburn and FSU. The Cocks won’t score 21 in this one and if Kelly Bryant can find his groove the Tigers should score well over 21. I am looking for Bryant to give us a clue as to what type of offense we’ll bring to Charlotte when the battles against elite competition begin.

The Tigers are 16-point favorites. If Bryant reaches 200+ passing yards, they should cover and provide reason for optimism moving forward. If not, this could be a four quarter game, but I still expect the Tigers to win.