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What to watch: Auburn vs. South Carolina edition

Auburn travels to Columbia, South Carolina, today looking for its third win of the season. The Tigers will face off against the Gamecocks, who are coached by two-time Auburn assistant coach Will Muschamp. South Carolina lost to Top 25 teams in each of its first two contests, before blasting Vanderbilt 41-7 in Week 3 to earn their first win of the year.

The Gamecocks’ victory over Vanderbilt last week was critical for South Carolina to alleviate some pressure on Will Muschamp and his coaching staff. It also gave the players needed confidence moving forward. This matchup is huge for both teams, as a loss for either will make the season almost impossible to salvage based on the programs’ preseason expectations.

Today, we look at three key areas that will impact who comes away victorious in this Week 4 contest between Auburn and South Carolina.

Third down defense
Third down defense is an area that Auburn has really struggled this year. Through two games, the Tigers were last in the SEC at stopping opposing offenses on third down. Following last week’s win against Arkansas, Auburn’s defense has moved up to 12th out of 14 SEC teams in third down defense. However, that clearly is not a stellar mark and is an area Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele wants to improve.

On the other side of the field, the Gamecocks defense currently ranks first in the conference, allowing opponents to successfully convert on third down chances less than 20% of the time. South Carolina defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson (former Auburn defensive back under coach Tommy Tuberville) has put together a defensive unit that has forced two different opponents to successfully convert on only one out of 11 third down attempts (Tennessee and Vanderbilt).

If one of these defensive units is able to consistently force the opposing offenses into third down situations, get stops and force punts, then it will be a big advantage for that squad.

Pass rush
Both of these defenses have been around league average in generating quarterback sacks through the first few weeks. Auburn and South Carolina’s defenses have amassed six and seven sacks, respectively. Even though neither team has set the world on fire in this category to this point, pass rush figures to be critical in today’s outcome.

South Carolina’s pass rush is led by junior defensive lineman Kingsley Enagbare, who has three quarterback sacks on the year. In addition to generating three sacks, Enagbare has also forced two fumbles in the first three games of the season. It will be important for an Auburn offensive line that has struggled in pass protection to have a good plan for dealing with Enagbare and his Gamecock teammates on the defensive front.

Auburn’s defense has struggled to generate much pressure on opposing quarterbacks without blitzing in the first three matchups of the season. This week the Tigers’ defense gets an opportunity to go against an offensive line that has given up more sacks than any other group in the conference so far. Coach Kevin Steele’s group must take advantage of this South Carolina weakness and get Gamecocks’ quarterback Collin Hill to the ground early and often.

Explosive offensive plays
The offenses in this game have both struggled to consistently move the ball against their opponents (when not playing Vanderbilt). Both the Gamecocks and Tigers rank in the bottom half of the conference in total offense and yards per play. Those numbers indicate that for either offense to light up the scoreboard, they will likely need to generate a number of big yardage plays.

The only issue is that both of these offenses also rank in the bottom half of the conference in creating big plays. So, if one of these offensive units is able to shake that pattern and connect on deep shots in the passing game or breakaway on a long run or two, then they will put their team in a position to win a much needed SEC game.

Zack Shaw is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News and former walk-on for the Auburn Tigers. You can contact him by email: zack@new-yhn.local or on Twitter @z_m_shaw

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