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Ninth-ranked South Carolina, which has a legitimate shot at its first SEC championship, jumps right into conference play Thursday when it visits Vanderbilt in the season opener. The Gamecocks have won 17 of 21 meetings over the Commodores, including last year’s 21-3 home victory. Vanderbilt, however, is a program on the rise under second-year coach James Franklin. The Commodores are coming off only the fifth bowl appearance in school history, and feature a slew of offensive stars led by quarterback Jordan Rodgers, younger brother of the Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Rodgers. South Carolina figures to test Vanderbilt’s questionable defense with a heavy dose of running back Marcus Lattimore, a Heisman candidate who looks healthy after tearing his ACL last October. Lattimore had 150 total yards and two touchdowns in last season’s matchup.
ABOUT VANDERBILT (2011: 6-7, 2-6 SEC): Running back Zac Stacy is the centerpiece of a potent offense. He ran for 1,193 yards and 14 TDs last season while averaging 5.9 yards per carry. Rodgers is a dual threat who ran for 420 yards last year. His favorite target is Jordan Matthews, who caught 41 balls for 778 yards and five TDs last year. The Commodores have an underrated offensive line anchored by versatile junior tackle Wesley Johnson, who can also play guard and center. The defense lost several key contributors from a unit that ranked seventh in the SEC in points allowed (21.6).
ABOUT SOUTH CAROLINA (2011: 11-2, 6-2 SEC): Junior quarterback Connor Shaw has won eight of his nine starts, the best nine-game record in the last 40 years of Gamecocks football. Lattimore, who led the team with 818 rushing yards despite missing half of last season, said he is not thinking about the injury anymore and won’t change his power running style. With star wide receiver Alshon Jeffery gone to the NFL, coach Steve Spurrier plans to ride Lattimore and a fierce defense led by ends Jadaveon Clowney (eight sacks) and Devin Taylor (six). South Carolina allowed 18.4 points last season, third-fewest in the SEC.
1. The Gamecocks have won nine of 11 games against Vanderbilt in Nashville.
2. Rodgers completed only 50 percent of his throws last season. He was 108-of-216 for 1,524 yards with nine touchdowns and 10 interceptions.
3. The 6-foot-6, 256-pound Clowney forced five fumbles and made 12 tackles for loss as a freshman and was named Freshman of the Year by SEC coaches.