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Qualk Talk

South Carolina is Wake Forest?

This week, some South Carolina fans got upset with me because I made an unfair and offensive comparison between their team and another 6-5 team. They couldn’t believe I would do such a thing. I couldn’t believe the way they reacted.

The team was Wake Forest. You know, the same team that Clemson easily defeated a week ago on the road. The similarities go far beyond their dueling barely-above-.500 records. Allow me to explain.

Advanced metrics of all shapes and sizes have some interesting things to say about those two teams. The two efficiency standards I most frequently use—the S&P+ and ESPN’s Football Power Index—currently give Wake Forest an average ranking of 66th in the nation. Meanwhile, South Carolina’s average ranking is 82.5. That’s a fairly sizable gap in a rating system that compares 128 FBS teams.

Offensively, South Carolina (104th) is slightly ahead of Wake Forest (105.5), while defensively, the Demon Deacons (30th) have a solid edge over the Gamecocks (48.5). Special teams also favors Wake Forest (33.5) over South Carolina (67th) by a wide margin.

Those aren’t the only two analytics to favor the Deacs over the Cocks overall. The F+/- rankings have Wake Forest 71st and South Carolina 85th, while Jeff Sagarin—the Ken Pomeroy of football analytics—have them 70th and 76th, respectively. Even the FPI’s official rankings have Wake Forest (67th) three spots ahead of South Carolina (70th).

The takeaway here is striking: Based on these metrics, it seems that Wake Forest has actually been better than South Carolina over the course of the season. Now, stats don’t tell the whole story. Injuries have Wake’s offense declining in recent weeks, while the Gamecocks are on the ascent thanks to the entry of quarterback Jake Bentley into the lineup. The other two sides of the ball, though, clearly favor the Demon Deacons.

The pushback from Columbia will obviously concern the strength of the two schedules, but even that seems to favor the Demon Deacons. Sagarin ranks Wake Forest’s schedule 57th in the country, while South Carolina’s sits at 63rd. The FPI’s strength of record stat (which gauges the likelihood of an average top 25 team to have a team’s record with its schedule) ranks the Demon Deacons 49th and the Gamecocks 54th.

Apparently the SEC isn’t automatically better than the ACC after all.

It’s not just analytics, either. Traditional stats paint eerily similar profiles for both teams, too. Both squads have struggled mightily on offense, with South Carolina (114th) outpacing Wake Forest (124th). Both have featured bend-but-don’t-break defenses. The Gamecocks rank 50th in total defense and 27th in scoring defense, while the Demon Deacons rank 51st and 31st, respectively.

Both teams have a knack for taking the ball away from opponents, particularly in the red zone. They are tied for eighth in the country with 24 takeaways, and both rank inside the nation’s top 20 in red zone defense. In fact, South Carolina’s 70.7 percent red zone defense conversion rate is almost identical to Wake Forest’s heading into last week’s game—before Clemson was a perfect 4-for-4 scoring points in those situations.

The two offensive lines are very weak, as well. South Carolina is tied for 114th in sacks allowed this season, just behind Wake Forest, which is tied for 112th. The Gamecocks have been much worse at giving up tackles for loss, ranking significantly lower (121st) than the Demon Deacons (T-72nd) in that regard.

Have I cherry-picked stats? Yes, definitely. There are some nuanced differences in schemes and philosophies that make the two teams slightly different. In terms of strengths and weaknesses and how they match up with Clemson’s strengths and weaknesses, however, these are the major factors that stand out—and almost all of them are identical for both teams. Honestly, I could have gone deeper into the statistical profiles to further prove my point, but I think you get the picture.

So the next time your Thanksgiving holiday is interrupted with thoughts of potentially losing to South Carolina on Saturday, think about this: Would I be this concerned if the opponent was Wake Forest?

Because it basically is.

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