They say the SEC tests depth more than any other league. You know what also does? The flu bug. With all of that SEC cash floating around, it would probably behoove South Carolina to invest in some flu shots this time next year. Not only is Gamecocks running back Marcus Lattimore questionable with a hip injury, and not only is star defensive end Jadeveon Clowney battling through a foot injury, but half of Steve Spurrier's other stars are fighting off a bug as well.
Ailing at USC: Lattimore (hip), Clowney (foot), Sanders (flu), Ellington (flu), Legree (flu), Matulis (flu), Gibson (flu), Quarles (shldr)— Josh Kendall (@JoshatTheState) October 17, 2012
One week after facing an elite team on the road in a hostile environment (LSU in Baton Rouge), South Carolina has to head out and face an elite team on the road in a hostile environment (Florida in Gainesville). Whether or not you agree with Florida as the No. 2 team in the country (their current BCS ranking), there is no question at this point that the Gators have improved dramatically in Will Muschamp's second season in charge. The defense has gone from good (22nd in Def. F/+) to elite (10th), the offense has gone from terribly mediocre (65th in Off. F/+) to good (24th), and the Florida special teams unit is again among the best in the country. The Gators would likely be favored against a full-strength South Carolina team at this point.
But S.C. is not full-strength. Never mind the flu-bitten players -- we'll assume that players like receiver Ace Sanders and Bruce Ellington and ultra-quick defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles will play, even if they are subbed out a bit more -- let's focus on the two stars and the impact their limited capabilities might have on the Gamecocks.
Marcus Lattimore is not impossible to replace
If nothing else, South Carolina has some experience in missing Marcus Lattimore. The junior missed the last half of the 2011 season with a knee injury, and despite the fact that the offense had been run entirely through him to that point, South Carolina didn't actually miss him when he was gone.
Marcus Lattimore looked like a Heisman candidate, rushing for 422 yards (6.6 per carry) versus Georgia and Navy … but only rushed for 396 yards (4.0 per carry) in five other games, then tore his ACL and was lost for the season. With star receiver Alshon Jeffery disappearing for long portions of the season, however, the offense somehow did not regress in Lattimore's absence.
S.C. Offense, First Seven Games (With Lattimore): 29.3 Adj. PPG
S.C. Offense, Last Six Games (Without Lattimore): 29.8 Adj. PPG
With Lattimore gone last year, Spurrier put more of the game onto Connor Shaw's shoulders, and the then-sophomore was coming far enough, fast enough, that it paid off. The running game was at least competent with Brandon Wilds and Kenny Miles (combined: 690 yards, 4.3 per carry in 2011) and, of course, the ultra-nimble Shaw; this year, Miles and freshman Mike Davis have combined for a bitches brew of 217 rushing yards (5.4 per carry) and 44 receiving yards (all from Miles). In their hands, the S.C. running game should still be competent.
It is also important to mention that Lattimore is far from irreplaceable. He is averaging just 4.5 yards per carry this year, and we cannot necessarily blame that simply on his recovery from knee surgery. In his last 11 games, since his eruption against Georgia and Navy last year, he has averaged just 4.2 per carry over 19 carries per game. South Carolina currently ranks 55th in Rushing S&P+ despite a line that ranks a solid 21st in the opponent-adjusted Adj. Line Yards measure. The line could be good enough to give Miles and Davis an opportunity to run their voodoo downfield a few times, especially against a Florida defensive line that ranks just 50th in Adj. Line Yards itself. Florida swarms very quickly and has a Top 10 rushing defense overall (seventh in Rushing S&P+), but if the line can win some battles, South Carolina's run game won't suffer much if Lattimore is either out or playing a smaller role.
Lattimore does help in two specific areas, however. First, he is among the best pass-catching running backs in the country. Shaw has targeted him more than any player on the team not named Ace Sanders, and he has caught 22 of 24 passes for 156 yards. He is not an explosive option out of the backfield (leave that to Sanders, Ellington and Rory Anderson), but he is a lovely lifeline. Miles has caught three of four passes for 44 yards, but that isn't much of a sample.
Lattimore is also one of the most efficient red zone backs in the country. Inside the opponent's 10 yard line, he has carried the ball 17 times, scored nine times, engineered a success rate of 71 percent (tremendous with that little space available) and gone backwards just once. Shaw keepers have not been very effective (17 percent success rate) and Miles and Davis have been kept mostly in a silent way: three carries, one score. You can run a bit on Florida in the red zone, but if the Gamecocks are settling for short field goals, Lattimore's absence will indeed be felt.
Jadeveon Clowney Is Really Good
Two things are certain:
1. South Carolina's pass rush is among the best in the country. Twelve different Gamecocks have at least one sack, and five have at least two. Ends Chaz Sutton and Aldrick Fordham have combined for 7.5 sacks, and even if Jadeveon Clowney is limited with a foot injury, S.C. should still manage a pretty strong pass rush against Jeff Driskel. Florida has the worst sack rate in the country, and while a lot of that has to do with the Texas A&M game, in which Driskel was sacked eight times on just 24 pass attempts, the protection has still not been amazing since then. If the Gators are falling into passing downs, Driskel will probably pay for it.
2. Clowney is still the leader of the pass rush. Only seven BCS conference defenders can top his 6.5 sacks (among them are Texas A&M's Damontre Moore, who brought Driskel down three times). If Clowney is limited, one could see him playing mostly passing downs, where, even on one healthy foot, he could do some damage and leave the every-down pursuit to Sutton and Fordham.
Again, South Carolina was probably not going to be favored in Gainesville, even with a healthy Lattimore and Clowney and no flu bug. The Gamecocks have a deep enough squad that, despite the health issues, they should still be able to take down just about anybody in the country. And if they lose in The Swamp, it will probably be because Florida is simply a better team at this point, one that has improved dramatically since last year's five-point loss in Columbia.
If Lattimore can still help in the red zone and Clowney can still draw attention on passing downs, South Carolina will still have a chance to pull the mild upset. But Florida is still more likely than not to remain undefeated come Saturday night.
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