KNOXVILLE - I exchanged question-and-answer blogs this week with Seth Emerson, who covers South Carolina football and men's basketball for The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C.
I hope this will shed some extra light on the 21st-ranked Gamecocks, who play at Tennessee on Saturday night.
You can read Seth's blog at http://blogs.thestateonline.net/semerson/, and The State's South Carolina coverage can be found at http://www.thestate.com/gogamecocks/.
Here are my South Carolina questions and Seth's Gamecocks answers.
1. South Carolina's Eric Norwood, much like UT's Eric Berry, is known nationally as the key component to an upper-echelon defense. But who are the South Carolina equivalents to linebacker Rico McCoy, tackle Dan Williams and cornerback Dennis Rogan? Who are the lesser-known guys who help make that defense so stout?
EMERSON: "Defensive end Cliff Matthews has five sacks and is an NFL prospect. He's as fast as you're going to see at defensive end. The other end, Clifton Geathers, is 6-7 and also very fast. Safety Chris Culliver has a chance to be an NFL guy, according to the coaches, but has been rather quiet on the stat front. The corners - sophomore Akeem Auguste and true freshman Stephon Gilmore - have a chance to be something special but are still young."
2. Most SEC fans have come to know South Carolina's Stephen Garcia as a talented quarterback who struggles to perform at a high level consistently. Is that the main reason for South Carolina's offensive struggles? If not, what is? It's probably a combination of factors, but what are those factors?
EMERSON: "Actually, Garcia has done rather well this year, better than expected. He's done a good job managing the game and hasn't been the turnover machine he was at times last year, such as the Outback Bowl. That said, he didn't take the next step at Alabama, missing on a few passes. It remains to be seen whether he can carry an offense. ... The main problem on the offense has been the line, which is giving up too many sacks and has been called for a lot of penalties."
3. Kicker Daniel Lincoln's quad injury has taken UT's special teams from bad to worse, but South Carolina doesn't seem statistically sound in special teams, either, aside from a few areas. Do you agree with that?
EMERSON: "Yup, definitely. The kickoff coverage has been rough, giving up two touchdown returns. And don't expect any touchbacks. The field-goal kicking has been OK, but Spencer Lanning hasn't tried many long ones. Lanning has done well punting, though."
4. Jarvis Giles and Alshon Jeffery are obviously two known names around UT football circles. Both players, especially Jeffery, have had their moments, but Giles seemingly has found at least a small amount of trouble. What kind of impact do you expect from those two players on Saturday?
EMERSON: "Jeffery should be a big factor. He's the real deal, and expect South Carolina to try to find ways to get him the ball, whether it's deep or short. Giles right now is third-string and he hasn't been a factor lately, but the tailback situation has been so fluid, you could never rule out him unexpectedly getting a bunch of carries."
5. How much reporting have you done on Gas-pumping-gate? I ask because of all the things Lane Kiffin reportedly has said, he's denied only two comments: the Jeffery situation and a comment credited to him by a Georgia radio personality that since has been proven false. Ed Orgeron claimed to be in the same room as Kiffin and also has denied the comments. Kiffin claimed to get Jeffery on the phone after the story surfaced, and that Jeffery admitted the comments weren't true. Obviously, none of us were in that room to hear the conversation, but have you discovered any evidence to support either side of that argument?
EMERSON: "You said the key thing: None of us were in that room. I'm careful to refer to it as alleged comments. That said, the Gamecock players this week seem adamant that Kiffin said it, so Jeffery, contrary to what he allegedly told Kiffin, appears to be confirming the pumping-gas remark. My personal belief, possibly colored by dealing with these guys every day but not Kiffin, is to wonder why Jeffery would make the 'pumping gas' thing out of thin air. Either way, Moe Brown (a senior receiver) went off about it Tuesday, saying it offended him, and junior safety Chris Culliver said Wednesday that Kiffin was 'supposedly' in there to build the program, 'but look at the (3-4) record.' So whether or not Kiffin really said it, the Gamecock players are using it as motivation."
6. If you're anything like me as a writer, you've long since grown sick of the whole "lack of respect" motivational ploy from coaches and players. But Saturday seems to be a situation where South Carolina is seriously a tad disrespected. Here are the Gamecocks, ranked No. 21 nationally, and so many people are saying UT (with a 3-4 record) will win this game. Do you think the Gamecocks are being overlooked heading into this game, or do you look at common opponents and see why so many seem to favor the Vols in this matchup?
EMERSON: "Not necessarily common opponents, but what they've done lately: Tennessee nearly won at No. 2 Alabama, while SC struggled at home to Vanderbilt. That said, yeah, I was a bit surprised UT opened as that much of a favorite. I see this as a bellwether game for both teams: SC has beaten who it should and lost to who it shouldn't; UT has been a little all over the place. As I write this on Wednesday night, I honestly haven't decided who I'd pick to win."
7. What are the most important things South Carolina must do to leave Knoxville with a win?
EMERSON: "It's gotta play defense the way it did at Alabama, and not at Georgia, because I don't see how the Gamecocks win a shootout against a Monte Kiffin/Eric Berry defense. SC also can't turn the ball over much, if at all - keeping the turnovers in check has been another reason it's done well so far. I'm going to say SC needs to win the battle of big plays - with Alshon Jeffery figuring heavily in that factor."
Other contacts for Wes Rucker are www.twitter.com/wesrucker, and www.facebook.com/tfpvolsbeat.