STARKVILLE, Miss. ó South Carolina was rolling along pretty well until the past week when the dismissal of quarterback Stephen Garcia made unwanted headlines.
Mississippi State would like nothing more than to keep the bad news coming for the Gamecocks.
The Bulldogs (3-3, 0-3 Southeastern Conference) host No. 15 South Carolina (5-1, 3-1) today at Davis Wade Stadium.
It will be South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw's third career start and his first in a true road game. He started the Gamecocks' season opener against East Carolina in Charlotte, a neutral site. After the first quarter, he was taken out and replaced with Garcia as planned.
Shaw, a 6-1, 204-pound sophomore, regained the starter's role and led South Carolina to a 54-3 victory over Kentucky last week. He became the first Gamecocks quarterback to throw for four touchdowns in a game since 2006, but Mississippi State's defense will likely pose a much bigger challenge.
The Bulldogs haven't surrendered a touchdown in the past six quarters and appear to be regaining the elite form that helped the program to a 9-4 record last season. Linebackers Cameron Lawrence and Brandon Wilson both have 50 tackles, which is tied for fifth in the conference.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said he expects Mississippi State will be confident, despite an 0-3 start in the league. The Bulldogs were ranked as high as No. 16 in the country before falling in the past month.
'They still believe they've got a real good team that just hasn't played all that well yet,' Spurrier said. 'So they're going to be tough, they're going to be ready to play.'
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said there wasn't much of a difference between Shaw and Garcia because both run the same spread option offense. Mullen seemed much more concerned with stopping running back Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery, the Gamecocks' powerful receiver who stands 6-4 and 229 pounds.
'He's a big receiver who has tremendous ball skills,' Mullen said. 'He might not have the breakaway speed of other guys, but he just has tremendous size, body control and great hands. The ball gets near him, and it's hard to get around him or get to the ball because he's just bigger than you are. He can box you out and go get it.'
Though Mississippi State hopes to slow down the Gamecocks' offense, it's doubtful it will stop them completely. For the Bulldogs to win, their disappointing offense must continue to improve.
Sophomore quarterback Tyler Russell provided some hope in last week's 21-3 victory over Alabama-Birmingham. He started the second half, taking over for ineffective senior Chris Relf and completing 11 of 13 passes for 166 yards and three touchdowns.
Mullen has been coy about who will start against South Carolina. He said Relf didn't play poorly against UAB, but the entire offense executed much better with Russell in the second half. Mullen even hinted that third-string quarterback Dylan Favre could see action in the right situation.
South Carolina is preparing for anybody, though the 6-4, 240-pound Relf provides a unique challenge because he's so good at running the football. Russell and Favre are primarily pocket passers.
The Gamecocks are also concerned about MSU running back Vick Ballard, who rebounded from a rough couple weeks to rush for 101 yards on 19 carries against UAB.
'They're definitely going to run the ball with the quarterback and the running back,' South Carolina safety Antonio Allen said. 'They're both great running guys.'
South Carolina played its best football in last week's lopsided win after sometimes struggling during the season's first month. Now the Gamecocks are trying to keep Garcia's dismissal from stopping momentum.
'I think it's always hard when you lose a teammate,' said defensive assistant coach Ellis Johnson. 'These guys have a lot of feelings for Stephen and it's something you wish wouldn't have happened, but I think they've moved on and are trying to focus on what's at hand and go ahead and get ready for Saturday. It doesn't matter how you feel about it, it's not going to change it. They're disappointed about it, but I think they've moved on.'
Inside The Game
Hereís a look at what could make the difference when No. 15 South Carolina and Mississippi State play this afternoon in Starkville, Miss.:
Mississippi State has been a Jekyll and Hyde kind of team when it comes to turnovers this season. In the three Mississippi State victories, the Bulldogs are plus-6 in takeaway margin, but minus-one in the three losses. The Gamecocks have forced 22 turnovers (10 fumbles and 12 interceptions) this season.
Red Zone offense
The Gamecocks are the worst team in the SEC in the red zone this season. South Carolina has been to the red zone 20 times and come away with 15 scores, all touchdowns. The Gamecocks canít squander any scoring chances, especially on the road against a defense as solid as Mississippi Stateís.
On the road again
After four straight games at home, the Gamecocks are back on the road for the first time in more than a month. Sophomore QB Connor Shaw is coming off a superb game when he threw for 311 yards and 4 TDs against Kentucky. But this isnít Kentucky and Shaw will be making his first career start in a hostile environment. Getting Alshon Jeffery and Marcus Lattimore involved early will help silence the crowd and those cowbells.
The Bulldogs had hopes of contending for the SEC West title and playing in a New Yearís Day bowl, but have yet to beat a team from a BCS conference this season. Will the dismissal of QB Stephen Garcia be an issue for the Gamecocks? Probably not. Shaw will draw on his experience last year on the road against Auburn and make enough plays for the Gamecocks to come out with a second SEC road win.
South Carolina 21, Mississippi State 17
Ė Andrew Miller