COLUMBIA — There’s always a chance. Minuscule or gargantuan, there’s always a chance.
South Carolina is a huge underdog in its game against No. 2 Alabama at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday, but yes, there’s the chance the Gamecocks could pull the upset. Maybe new quarterback Ryan Hilinski catches the Crimson Tide by surprise, maybe USC’s defense really did relearn how to tackle in a week. Maybe, just maybe, the fates align so the Gamecocks finally add a No. 2 to their list of top five victories (they’ve beaten a 1, 3, 4 and 5).
They should be relaxed. They’re not only supposed to lose, they’re supposed to get blown out.
So if it’s close in the fourth quarter, the pressure’s on the visitors.
“Let’s catch the ball down the field. Defensively, let’s gain some field position, some momentum in the game, do a great job on special teams controlling the vertical field position,” coach Will Muschamp said.
Here are four keys to a Gamecocks victory:
Any quarterback can stand back there when there’s no pass rush and find an open receiver. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa can do it even when he’s pressured.
The Gamecocks’ had three sacks against North Carolina and one against Charleston Southern (coordinator Travaris Robinson called off the dogs since USC was up 30 points early in a 72-10 rout). It may not have to have great sack totals against Alabama — but it has to affect Tagovailoa some way.
Get to him. Hit him. Knock him down. Bat passes away. In short, revert him to what he was in last year’s national championship game, when Clemson’s defense made him look like it was his first game.
With all he’s been through, there is no way USC quarterback Ryan Hilinski will be afraid of a football game, much less a football opponent. He’ll be fine under center even though several future NFL millionaires will be staring at him from the other side of the ball.
Yet the Gamecocks’ offensive line needs to keep him as unbothered as possible. They have to open holes for the running backs so that all of the pressure isn't on Hilinski.
The only way the Gamecocks’ two best players, wide receivers Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith, get the ball is if Hilinski can get it to them. He can’t do that unless that rebuilt line keeps Hilinski off the grass.
Cornerback Jaycee Horn certainly didn’t brag or promise that Alabama’s corps of elite wide receivers, led by 2018 Biletnikoff Award winner Jerry Jeudy, would be silenced Saturday. He did say he welcomed the challenge because as any competitor, he wanted to play against the best.
Outside of Hilinski, the Gamecocks’ secondary is the most promising area of the team. If they can cover Jeudy, Henry Ruggs, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle just enough so Tagovailoa hesitates, then USC defensive linemen D.J. Wonnum and Javon Kinlaw have more time to get to him. If that happens, Alabama's offense takes a serious hit.
In one of USC’s biggest upsets — with the one above all others being the 2010 stunner against No. 1 Alabama — the Gamecocks beat No. 4 Ole Miss in 2009. With "Sandstorm" blasting inside Williams-Brice Stadium, the crowd and atmosphere was electric.
The Gamecocks need that fan support and enthusiasm on Saturday. And USC hopes the game is close enough to keep those fans in the stadium until the end of the game.
Muschamp is 1-11 against Top 25 teams. Many of those games have been over by halftime. If the Gamecocks are still in the game in the second half, the crowd can help them turn an upset chance into reality.
Alabama 40, South Carolina 18