|Marcus Lattimore makes his return in hostile territory. (Getty Images)|
SOUTH CAROLINA WILL WIN IF: they can find an offensive balance. Vanderbilt only lost four starters from their surprisingly stout 2011 defense, but three of them were their best three players: end Tim Fugger, linebacker Chris Marve, and corner Casey Hayward. With those losses, the Gamecock offense is more talented almost across the board, and that of course includes the potential Heisman winner at tailback. If Connor Shaw and the Gamecock passing game can keep the Commodores even remotely honest, the home team will get run over.
That's easier said than done, though--5'8" Ace Sanders is the Gamecocks' only proven wideout, and Hayward didn't vault the 'Dores to the FBS No. 9 ranking in 2011 pass efficiency defense all by himself. If Shaw can't stretch the field, even Lattimore might not be able to move the ball by himself--especially behind a line missing three 2011 starters.
VANDERBILT WILL WIN IF: Jordan Rodgers has taken the next step. The Commodore quarterback dramatically upgraded the Vandy passing game over the second half of last season after arriving from JUCO, but still alternated outstanding throws with the occasional rookie mistake. He's going to have opportunities to show how far he's come vs. the Gamecocks; an inexperienced Carolina secondary made even more inexperienced by Akeem Auguste's injury would seem to be at a substantial matchup disadvantage against the excellent Vandy receiving tandem of Jordan Matthews (6'3", 205) and Chris Boyd (6'4", 205). With tailback Zac Stacy (5.9 YPC 2011) and a veteran line to contend with, the Gamecocks may not be able to cheat much to help out that secondary, either.
Of course, a pass rush featuring Devin Taylor coming off of one edge and Jadeveon Clowney coming off the other won't make things easy for Rodgers regardless. But all the same, if Rodgers has smoothed out the wrinkles from last fall, the Commodores should be capable of moving the ball.
THE X-FACTOR: No one would call 44,000-seat Vanderbilt Stadium one of the tougher places to play in the SEC -- as of Wednesday, tickets for Thursday night's game were still available -- but you wouldn't know it from the first year of the James Franklin era, where the 'Dores went a perfect 7-0 against the spread, crushed the likes of Kentucky, Ole Miss, and Army, could have beaten Georgia, and should have beaten Arkansas if not for a backbreaking Stacy fumble. Amplify Franklin's effect by the boost of an ultra-rare (for Vanderbilt) nationally-televised primetime game at home, and the 'Dores should be just about as ready to play as it's possible to be. The Gamecocks have been solid-to-outstanding on the road the past two years, but the atmosphere promises to be a daunting challenge all the same.