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Gameday preview: USC vs Ole Miss

USC defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye (91) USC linebacker Jasper Brinkley (52) combine to tackle Wofford FULLBACK Dane Romero No. 18.
USC defensive tackle Ladi Ajiboye (91) USC linebacker Jasper Brinkley (52) combine to tackle Wofford FULLBACK Dane Romero No. 18. The State

INJURIES

USC - LB Reggie Bowens (knee) and DT Kenny Davis (ankle) are out; Spur Antonio Allen (concussion) is doubtful; DT Nathan Pepper (ankle) is questionable; RB Kenny Miles (shoulder), WR Stephen Flint (arm), S Chris Culliver (shoulder) are probable.

Ole Miss - FB Andy Hartmann (knee) is out; TE Gerald Harris (hamstring) is doubtful; DE Greg Hardy (ankle) is probable.

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Five Storylines

Get well soon | The Gamecocks' defense looks like a MASH unit this week, with as many as six regulars dealing with injuries. Most are expected to play, although coaches are not sure how many snaps defensive tackle Nathan Pepper will last on his sprained ankle. USC gets tackle Ladi Ajiboye back from suspension to help on the interior. Greg Hardy, the Rebels' All-American candidate at defensive end, is less than 100 percent with an ankle injury.

McCluster the Tackle-Buster | Dexter McCluster is one of the SEC's best all-purpose backs. The 5-foot-9, 170-pounder lines up at quarterback in the Wild Rebel formation, and is Ole Miss' leading receiver with nine catches for 113 yards and a touchdown. McCluster ran for 40 yards and a touchdown and added six receptions for 99 yards last year against South Carolina, but had a key second-half fumble inside the Gamecocks' 10.

Stage to themselves | For three-plus hours tonight, the college football world will be focused on Williams-Brice Stadium. That's the kind of publicity neither team can buy. It gives Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead a chance to make an early impression on Heisman voters. The bright lights usually bring out the best in Gamecocks linebacker Eric Norwood, who returned two fumbles for touchdowns in a Thursday night victory against Kentucky in 2007.

Ball protection program | Boring as it sounds, turnovers could be the difference. USC had preseason concerns about quarterback Stephen Garcia's decision-making ability, but the redshirt sophomore has held on to the ball and helped the Gamecocks to a plus-4 in turnover margin. Turnovers killed the Rebels against USC last year in Oxford. Snead had a fumble that was returned for a touchdown, while McCluster's fumble deep in Gamecocks' territory swung momentum.

No time like the present | It has been nearly 30 years since the Gamecocks' only victory against a top-5 team - 31-13 at No. 3 North Carolina on Oct. 24, 1981. USC is 1-31 against top-5 teams and 0-4 under Steve Spurrier. With No. 1 Florida and No. 3 Alabama on the schedule, the Gamecocks figure to have other chances. But this might be their best shot against an Ole Miss squad that underwhelmed in two nonconference games and is considered by many to be overrated.

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Game Within the Game

Steve Spurrier vs. Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix

About Spurrier: The Gamecocks' offense has come to life after a listless start at N.C. State. With Steve Spurrier Jr. serving as the principal play-caller, USC has averaged 37.5 points and 471.5 yards against Georgia and Florida Atlantic. Spurrier is 3-0 against Ole Miss, including a 31-24 win last year in Oxford.

How he'll win: Though he has turned over most of the play-calling to his son, the 64-year-old Spurrier still makes his presence felt. At Georgia, Spurrier changed several plays from the sideline when he identified the Bulldogs' coverage. If Spurrier gets an early read on the Rebels' blitzes, he will have Stephen Garcia check to another play to try to take advantage of one-on-one opportunities in the secondary.

Key number: 327, Gamecocks' passing yardage last year at Ole Miss, the fifth-highest total in Spurrier's tenure at USC

About Nix: The 36-year-old Nix was Spurrier's defensive coordinator from 2005-07, sharing the title with John Thompson his first year. In Nix's final season at USC, the Gamecocks had the SEC's best pass defense and ranked fifth nationally (168.8 ypg). But it was the Rebels' run defense that was stout under Nix last year, finishing fourth in the country by allowing 85.5 ypg.

How he'll win: Nix is not afraid to attack in nearly any situation and take his chances with a lot of man coverages. The key for Nix will be to disguise those blitzes and coverages, so Spurrier does not read them and adjust accordingly. The Rebels will try to rattle Garcia, who has taken good care of the ball (two interceptions, no fumbles) through the first three games.

Key number: 111, Ole Miss' NCAA-leading total of tackles for loss in 2008.

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Five Questions Jason Barnes, wide receiver/No. 4/Charlotte

Barnes caught seven passes for 76 yards and two touchdowns last year at Ole Miss, including one in which he was drilled in the end zone. The redshirt sophomore is trying to work his way back after losing his starting spot in the preseason.

Q: This was your breakout game last year in Oxford. What do you remember most about it?

A: I remember that big hit. We just watched it in the film room. Everybody made a little noise when they saw it like, 'Ooh, sick.' I remember just stepping up and trying to catch everything that came my way.

Q: Who made the hit and is he still on the team?

A: I think it was No. 11, and I think he's gone. (YouTube video of the play shows current Ole Miss safety Johnny Brown on the hit.) But they've still got some big ol' safeties, so I told Tori (Gurley) and Alshon (Jeffery) to watch out 'cause when those boys come down they'll be hitting. So they're going to be looking out for that.

Q: Most people thought you'd be the go-to receiver this year. With how you played against Florida Atlantic (three receptions for 40 yards), are there signs that you're becoming more involved in the offense?

A: I feel like coach (Spurrier) is getting more confidence in me every practice. Whatever he wants me to do out there on the field, I'm going to go do it, whether it's blocking or catching the ball or cheering on the sideline. Whatever coach wants me to go do, I'm going to go do it to the best of my abilities.

Q: How frustrating has this been for you?

A: It's always frustrating to be moved to another position on the field and having to start over a little bit. But I built back up, learning the plays at the new receiver position. It's coming back together for me. Every practice, I learn more and more about the new receiver position I'm at. I've just got to keep learning and keep doing everything right.

Q: You've never thought about trying to play basketball somewhere?

A: (Laughs) I've talked to a couple people about it, and you've just got to keep your head on straight and just keep listening and learning. That's the only way you're going to be back on top. I'm just going to keep doing what I was told by many people, and just keep trying to get back where I was.

Joe Person's pick: Ole Miss 31, USC 24

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