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The BIG PREVIEW: Virginia Cavaliers take on South Carolina Gamecocks

The Hoos have a daunting task ahead of them.

NCAA Football: Akron at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

The 2018 Belk Bowl features the ACC’s Virginia Cavaliers against the SEC’s South Carolina Gamecocks. Most fans would consider that a mismatch just based on conference ties. Would you believe that the ACC actually has a winning record (26-25) against the SEC over the past 5 years?

OK, but Clemson is 9-3 over that time period and FSU is 5-1. The rest of the ACC is 11-18. So, maybe the fans are correct. The SEC has, for the most part, enjoyed a one-sided relationship with the ACC. Virginia has not played an SEC team since the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against Auburn in 2011. As most readers will recall, that did not go well.

Over the same time period (last 4 years), the ACC is 23-19 in bowl games, which isn’t too bad. (That number includes 2 bowl game wins for Clemson’s National Title in 2016.)

The oddsmakers do not like Virginia’s chances in this game, favoring the Gamecocks by 5.5.

The game will take place at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, NC on December 29th at noon Eastern. It will air on ABC. Let’s look at some matchups.

Virginia on Offense

If you’re reading this, you probably know that the Virginia offense had an up and down year. Overall, they finished 84th nationally in total offense (10th in the ACC). They were 68th in scoring offense though. The advanced statistics also tell a better story, as Virginia finished 65th in offensive S&P. Still in the bottom half of the nation, but only barely.

There were times when Virginia’s offense looked unstoppable. Three times Virginia broke the 40-point barrier. They scored over 25 points another 4 times. But there were other times when the offense couldn’t get anything going. They scored just 16 points (in the rain) against Indiana’s 85th ranked defense, and just 13 against Pitt’s 67th ranked defense. They scored 16 against Miami, but Miami’s defense ranks 7th. All of that is a long way of saying we really have no idea what Virginia will do against South Carolina’s 61st-ranked defense. (All ranks are from Football Outsider’s S&P.)

The Gamecocks are 88th in total defense, 94th in rushing defense and 66th in passing defense. Playing the SEC means playing against some pretty good offenses. They also played Clemson. In all, they played five of the top 20 offenses in the nation (as ranked by offensive S&P). Virginia didn’t play any of the top 20 (though NC State is ranked 21st). That’ll skew your results. To be fair, they also played 128th ranked Akron, 92nd ranked Kentucky and Chattanooga, who ranked 91st in FCS in total offense. Still, it was a tougher schedule than Virginia faced. Such is life in the SEC.

The Gamecocks play a hybrid defense. One position is labeled the “Buck”. Virginia also has a Buck position, but for the Wahoos’ 3-4 defense, that’s an ILB. For the Gamecocks, it’s a hybrid DE/OLB. Here’s a couple of examples.

This is a typical defensive call for SC. They line up with three down linemen and a fourth acting as a DL in a 2-point stance. On this play, with the QB dropping back to pass, SC brings just the three down linemen.

In this example, there are just two down linemen, with two others in a 2-point stance. Again, they bring just three pass rushers.

In both cases, these are first down plays with the Gamecocks likely focusing on stopping the run. Both plays ended with completed passes, the first one for a big gain.

The best player on this defense is probably MLB T.J. Brunson. He leads the team in tackles and TFLs and is second in sacks, with 4. The team leader in sacks is Javon Kinlaw, injured his hip and has had surgery to fix the issue. He will miss the game. Also out for SC is top CB Keisean Nixon.

This isn’t really a huge deal for South Carolina, as they’ve had injured throughout their defense all season long. Starting DT Kier Thomas, OLB Bryson Allen-Williams, DE D.J. Wonnum, DE Aaron Sterling and safety J.T. Ibe all missed much of the season due to injury. They’re used to having to incorporate different players into different positions. Sterling, Thomas and Allen-Williams will be back for this game.

As a team, the Gamecocks had 24 sacks, just 74th nationally. As is often the case without a natural dominating pass rusher, they have to be creative to generate pressure. Part of that is the hybrid defense. Like Virginia, SC uses a variety of pass rushers and formations to find ways to get at the opposing QB. In the first example above, the Buck lines up on the line, but drops into coverage. The OLB on the opposite side looks like he might have underneath coverage responsibility. He stays home because the RB and TE both stay home to block. In the second example, it seems like both OLBs are heading upfield. The play action, however, causes both to slow down.

Although Brunson is the leader of the defense, the secondary is really the strength of the unit. Or was, before Nixon went down. The nickel CB, true freshman Jaycee Horn, will step into his place. Horn, though, will likely remain as the nickel CB, with another true freshman, Israel Mukuamu, playing on the outside. At 6’4”, Mukuamu is a tough matchup for Virginia’s bigger WRs. Robert Anae will use motion to try getting Olamide Zaccheaus matched up against Mukuama. He’ll struggle with OZ’s quickness and agility. How those two guys step up may very well determine the outcome of this game.

If Bryce Perkins is able to take advantage of Nixon’s absence and hit on some plays downfield, it’ll be a huge boost. For the most part, Virginia is going to rely on Perkins and Ellis and the ground game. That has been their most successful offense this year, and it also keeps SC’s offense off the field. That’s how they want to win.

Virginia on Defense

For the most part, defense is where Virginia shined this year. The Hoos finished 24th in the nation in total defense, and 3rd in the ACC. They were 29th in defensive S&P. Virginia was particularly good in pass defense, where they finished 14th overall, 15th in pass efficiency defense, and 14th in interceptions. That’s all despite a poor pass rush that ranked just 80th, with 23 sacks in 12 games.

With few natural pass rushers, not to mention a number of injuries along the defensive front 7, Virginia’s defensive coaching staff has had to be imaginative in order to generate pressure.

We saw many different formations, including Virginia lining up with only one defensive lineman. Virginia started five out of thirteen games in a 2-3-5 lineup. This was because of injuries. Eight different DLs started a game.

The Wahoo defense proved that generating pressure is only one way to slow down passing attacks. Having talented defensive backs also works. Virginia is often willing to give up short passes, with the knowledge that they can make the tackle. The Wahoo defense gave up just five passes of over 40 yards, and just one of over 50 yards.

That could be bad news for the Gamecocks, who had 13 completions of over 40 yards, and 11 of 50 or more. Five different players had receptions of over 50 yards. That includes leading receiver Deebo Samuel. As you may have heard, Samuel has elected to skip the bowl game to get ready for the draft. This is good news for Virginia and bad news for SC.

Samuel was, undoubtedly, the biggest threat the Gamecocks had. But junior Bryan Edwards is also very dangerous. Samuel led the team with 62 receptions for 882 yards and 11 TDs. Edwards had 52 receptions for 809 yards and 7 TDs. For the math disadvantaged, Edwards averaged more yards per catch than Samuel did. Of course, it remains to be seen if Edwards is as dangerous without Samuel on the other side.

Edwards is very dangerous around the endzone because of his size. Here is one example of Edwards around the goal line. This is also a tremendous throw by backup QB Michael Scarnecchia.

Samuel has elite, game-breaking speed. Edwards isn’t nearly as fast. But while Samuel was the team’s kick returner this year, Edwards was the primary punt returner. At 6’3” 220, Edwards provides a different matchup than Samuel. However, the guy who will be taking Samuel’s snaps is 5’10” 187 lb Shi Smith, who matches Samuel’s speed and quickness. He was the #1 recruit in South Carolina in 2017 and had 39 catches for 597 yards and 4 TDs as the third option. Against Clemson, Samuel had 10 catches for 210 yards. Smith had 9 for 109.

Under center is junior Jake Bentley. He’s thrown for nearly 3000 yards this year, to go along with 27 TDs and 12 INTs (and he missed the Mizzou game with an injury). He’s completed 64% of his passes. Those are outstanding numbers, and they include a 32/50 for 510 yards and 5 TDs against Clemson. Here are all five of those TDs.

This is an incredibly difficult throw. He’s under immense pressure and he manages to find a window and thread the ball in to Samuel.

This throw is off his back foot, across his body and under pressure. He slings the ball 35 yards into a very small window. Another impressive throw, but a very dangerous pass.

These two are much simpler throws. However, because of Clemson’s pass rush, he really isn’t able to fully step into either throw. And he’s still able to get enough on them to hit his man. In both cases, his man is pretty open which helps.

This final throw is, perhaps, the best of the bunch. That ball is placed perfectly where his man has a chance to make the grab.

You may wonder why I chose to show all five TDs from the same game. Clemson has the best defense in the nation. Their pass rush is pretty much unstoppable. If Bentley is able to do this against Clemson, Virginia should be worried.

There’s another reason I chose to highlight Bentley’s throws. This is a huge part of their offense. They ranked 24th in the nation in passing offense, but 72nd in rushing offense. Against the better defenses in the SEC (and Clemson), SC couldn’t run the ball at all. But against “regular” defenses, they ran a much more balanced offense. They rushed for over 200 yards four times. The problem is, they don’t really have a go-to RB. Four guys are listed as “OR” on the depth chart as the starting RB. All four have at least 46 carries this year. The last of those guys, A.J. Turner, was last year’s leading rusher.

Bentley can also run it a little bit. He had just 90 total yards rushing, but is not afraid to take off if space is there. We won’t see any designed QB runs, but we will see some read-option and run-pass-option.

The Gamecock’s OL is a veteran unit, with three seniors and a junior. They’ve been remarkably healthy, with the starting five making 53 starts (out of a possible 60). However, the best of the group might be LG Zack Bailey and he broke his foot in the regular season finale and will miss the Belk Bowl. Most likely, his replacement will be Chandler Ferrell playing OC, with starting center Donell Stanley moving over to guard. That hurts the unit, though a month of practice should solve many of the problems.

The OL’s strength is run blocking. They are big, but not the most fleet-of-foot. Because of that, they do a LOT of play-action passing, which essentially allows the OL to run block on pass plays. You really don’t see very many straight drop-backs from Bentley. Almost everything is off play-action, or a read-option look.

So much of the Gamecock’s offense is based on big plays. They are one of the worst teams in the country in time of possession. They really don’t want to dink and dunk their way down the field. A lot of that is Bentley. He’s a gunslinger. He has a cannon, and he wants to let it rip. But without Samuel, a bit part of the downfield passing game is gone. It will be interesting to see how head coach Will Muschamp and Offensive Coordinator Bryan McClendon choose to attack Virginia. We know that Virginia’s defense is susceptible to power RBs. The Gamecocks have several bigger RBs and an OL that will have a big advantage against Virginia’s beaten up DL.

Meanwhile, Virginia will probably spent a great deal of time in a nickel package. This keeps them vulnerable to the run, but it gets the best players on the field. The CBs will play a lot of man coverage on the outside, which is possible with Samuel out. The safeties will have deep coverage and some zone over the middle. That means the front 6 needs to be able to handle the run game. If they can keep the running game in check, the DBs will have chances to make plays. A key interception could very well determine the outcome of this game.

SC scored 35 on Clemson’s defense. That’s the most Clemson allowed all year. Bentley had the game of his life. If he does that again, it won’t be close. But a typical Bentley game is not something Virginia’s defense can’t handle.

Conclusion

At full strength, South Carolina is almost definitely more talented than Virginia. Going 7-5 in the SEC is more impressive than going 7-5 in the ACC. But the Gamecocks aren’t at full strength. They are missing quite a few players, including two of their most talented in Samuel and Kinlaw.

The problem is, even at less than full strength, the SEC team is simply better than the ACC team.

Prediction: Gamecocks 31, Virginia 20