South Carolina faces its stiffest test to date Saturday in Athens, Georgia.
Facing the No. 2 Georgia Bulldogs (2-0) at Sanford Stadium, USC (2-0) will take its first Southeastern Conference road trip of the Shane Beamer era this weekend.
After downing East Carolina 20-17 in a thriller last week, the Gamecocks will look to spring an upset for the second consecutive trip to UGA after downing the Bulldogs on the road in 2019.
It will also mark the first meeting between South Carolina and former head coach Will Muschamp, who was hired by Georgia over the offseason as a defensive analyst before shifting to special teams coach when Scott Cochran took a leave of absence earlier this year.
Here are three X-factors in this weekend’s contest:
QB Zeb Noland/Luke Doty
While we’re not totally sure whether Luke Doty will be healthy enough to play Saturday, let’s operate under the assumption Zeb Noland will get snaps as QB1 on Saturday.
Noland was slightly less effective in last week’s win over East Carolina, completing 13-of-24 passes for 225 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
That said, he did complete 3-of-4 passes of 20 yards or more per SEC StatCat as he faced a persistent Pirates pass rush.
Raised in Watkinsville, Georgia — which is only a long football toss from Athens — Saturday would mark a homecoming for Noland and his family. His father, Travis, is also the head coach at nearby Oconee County High School, where Zeb played his prep ball.
Through two weeks, Noland has largely kept his passes safe and avoided major mistakes. Facing the No. 1 statistical defense in the country Saturday, he’ll have to be able to force the ball downfield and keep the defense honest should the Bulldogs stack the box as ECU did a week ago.
WR Josh Vann
Following in tune with the previous section, South Carolina was able to air the ball out deep last week at ECU in part due to receiver Josh Vann.
Vann’s career had been mostly disappointing since he arrived as a highly-touted four-star recruit in the class of 2018. However, the Georgia native has started to flip the script.
Through two games, Vann has recorded eight catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns. He’d never recorded more than 171 yards and one touchdown in a season the past three years.
South Carolina’s receivers were largely maligned during the offseason for their lack of playmakers. Vann has quickly emerged as a go-to target for Noland and a target on the outside who can take the top off the defense.
Georgia’s secondary is allowing just 112.5 yards per game through its first two weeks. South Carolina’s run game was stalled for the bulk of last week’s contest.
If the Gamecocks get stymied on the ground, Vann can help alleviate some pressure for South Carolina’s quartet of talented tailbacks.
South Carolina’s defensive line
Normally I’d make this just one player, but it’s hard to separate out the Gamecocks’ defensive line.
Armed with a group that includes potential first-round NFL draft pick Kingsley “JJ” Enagbare, early season standout Aaron Sterling and former five-star recruits Zacch Pickens and Jordan Burch, among others, the Gamecocks have been downright dominant early this fall.
Through two games, South Carolina currently ranks as the No. 1 pass-rushing team in America per Pro Football Focus. South Carolina has also already recorded seven sacks — which ranks tied-for-fifth in the SEC.
On Saturday, South Carolina’s front five will face a Georgia offensive line that has only allowed one sack and six tackles for a loss through two games.
With the secondary still finding its footing — though the back end of the Gamecocks defense has held up better than most expected — it’ll fall on the USC defensive line to put some pressure on the Bulldogs quarterback to help the secondary.