COLUMBIA -- It's extremely unfair.
But nobody ever said winning football belonged to the team who was treated fairly.
South Carolina's being asked to beat arch-rival Clemson on Saturday for several reasons. Defeating the Tigers in two straight years would be an accomplishment not seen in nearly 40 years and would push the Gamecocks off the bubble into the happy world of a bowl game guarantee, not to mention restore some confidence to a group that's free-fallen spectacularly in the past month.
To accomplish it, all the Gamecocks have to do is shut down Clemson's productive offense, led by quarterback Cullen Harper, he of the 2,658 passing yards with 26 touchdowns, a 66.3 completion percentage and only five interceptions.
No problem, right? USC's got the fourth-ranked pass defense in the country and the top unit in the SEC, only giving up 163.3 yards per game.
At least, USC did.
"Right now, Emanuel Cook and Darian Stewart are making about all the tackles, which having two safeties make them, is not good," coach Steve Spurrier said. "Hopefully, our linebackers and D-linemen will get involved in tackling real soon, like Saturday night."
The Gamecocks' secondary, the biggest reason for its lofty ranking, comes into Saturday's game with its own MASH unit ready on the sidelines. Starting cornerback Captain Munnerlyn is out with a foot sprain, Cook is still playing on a tender ankle and backup corner Brandon Isaac's shoulder is so bad, it could pop out of joint if he tries to make a tackle.
Freshman Addison Williams was elevated to starting corner this week over Carlos Thomas, who's been spending the past few games either getting out-jumped for fade passes or getting whistled for interference. Stewart and Cook are in the safety spots and Stoney Woodson is at the other corner. Since Isaac won't play except in an emergency, Chris Hampton will back up Stewart and Cook.
Anything happens to those guys, and secondary coach Ron Cooper might be pulling folks out of the stands for a snap or two.
"It is rough," Hampton said with a mighty exhale. "But the secondary, the first job is to stop the pass. We just have to find a way."
Harper's precise approach doesn't see him firing downfield a lot, preferring short sideline routes to slot receiver Tyler Grisham or swing routes to his tailbacks. That doesn't mean the Tigers can't chunk it deep a few times -- receiver Aaron Kelly has racked up 911 yards and 11 touchdowns on streaks down the sideline or slants to the middle.
USC's secondary has got a glaring target on it, but it may fade as the game begins. Another large reason why the pass D has been ranked so high is because the run defense hasn't performed -- the Gamecocks rank 102nd in the country against the run and their past two games have featured Arkansas' Darren McFadden (321 yards) and Felix Jones (166) plus Florida's Tim Tebow (120 and five touchdowns), doing whatever they pleased.
Whether Clemson will hand the ball to tailbacks James Davis and C.J. Spiller, who each carved apart the Gamecocks last year, is up to the Tigers. But since the front seven hasn't shown much effort in stopping the run, the secondary will have to pull double-duty, jamming the backs of the linebackers while also keeping eyes on Harper.
"It takes all 11 to stop the run," Hampton said. "We just have to get back to the basics -- tackling, getting off blocks. If we do that, we'll be fine."