After feeling like Tennessee had very little chance against Alabama and Ole Miss, the Vols should be in contention for all four games down the stretch. This could be the toughest of the four left considering it’s on the road and the Vols have been grinding for several weeks in a row now.
South Carolina’s season hasn’t gone according to plan. A chic pick to win the SEC East before the season, the Gamecocks are a disappointing .500 and have lost some games that few expected them to. They’ve looked really, really bad at times, but they’ve also knocked off Georgia and they played Auburn down to the end on the road last week. There’s talent on this roster and the Gamecocks are a scary team.
That’s particularly true on offense. Quarterback Dylan Thompson is on pace for a single-season passing record for the Gamecocks and he has several impressive targets to throw to, including Pharoh Cooper, Nick Jones, Shaq Roland and Jerrell Adams. South Carolina has balance as well. Running back Mike Davis is a threat for 100 yards and at least one touchdown per game in any contest. That’ll be a tough test for a defense that got exposed at times against Alabama, but has also played exceptionally well more often than not this season. There isn’t that one SC player that I see killing Tennessee, but all 11 Vols will need to play well on that side of the ball for Tennessee to be successful. That’s especially true of the defensive line, which will be matched up against a big and physical offensive line for South Carolina.
I’m really interested to see what Tennessee can do on offense. The Vols looked like a rejuvenated unit last week for the final three quarters against Alabama and now the challenge will be carrying that forward against a defense that has a better idea of what’s coming. That being said, it’s also a defense that isn’t nearly as talented as what UT saw against Alabama or Ole Miss. The Vols have a great chance to move the ball and put points on the board. They should look to run the ball 45-50 times and aim for 200 yards on the ground against the worst rushing defense in the league. That should open up the passing game and Dobbs needs to make the routine throws and a few spectacular ones. UT’s receivers should have an edge on South Carolina’s DBs.
On paper, these two teams match up pretty evenly. I thought the spread that opened at eight points was too high and that’s been reflected as it’s gone down some since opening. My biggest questions is if this team is mature enough and ready to win a big road game. The Vols haven’t knocked off a non-Vandy/Kentucky opponent on the road since 2007. I think they very well could, but as a picker, I’m putting the burden of proof on UT to show that they can do just that. I expect it to come down to a couple plays – possibly a turnover, a penalty or a field goal – and though the Vols got the Gamecocks last year, most of recent history shows that the Vols will come up on the short end of that type of game. Pick: South Carolina 31-28
MVP: Tennessee RB Jalen Hurd
Yes, I can pick an MVP to be on the team I choose to lose. Win or lose, I think it’ll be a big day for Hurd, who I think is the healthiest he’s been in a few weeks and looked more comfortable with Dobbs in the game. He got back to running angry last week and the offensive line found some confidence as well. All of that combined with the fact that SC’s run defense has been atrocious this season gives me confidence that Hurd will put up good numbers. I think he’ll be used as a traditional running back, a receiver and he’ll take some direct snaps in the Thundering Hurd wildcat look on multiple occasions as well.
Pick: It is officially make or break time for Tennessee in 2014. Starting with the Gamecocks this weekend, the Vols will be entering into their final four games with a real opportunity to win all of them and achieve the program’s first bowl birth since 2010. At 3-4 on the season, Tennessee only needs to win three of the finally four to gain bowl eligibility, but a victory this weekend in Columbia could certainly be the spark that this team needs to run the table.
To earn that victory, Tennessee will have to contain a South Carolina offense that has, at times, been nearly unstoppable. If given time in the pocket, Dylan Thompson has shown multiple times this season that he can find open receivers and make all of the necessary throws in order to get them the football. Thompson is coming off of a 29-of-50 performance against Auburn that saw him throw for 401 yards and five touchdowns, but he also turned the ball over three times on interceptions. If there is one thing that should give Tennessee confidence against USC’s passing game this week, it’s the fact that Thompson has shown the propensity to be rather careless with the football at times this season and will force passes into tight coverage.
But before they will have the opportunity to force Thompson into poor decisions, Tennessee will have to prove that they can contain Mike Davis, Brandon Wilds and the Gamecock ground game. Davis and Wilds have a combined 205 carries this year for 1,052 yards and nine rushing touchdowns – that’s a very solid 5.13 yards per carry average for those two. Both Davis and Wilds each have the ability to get tough yards between the tackles, but also possess deceptive speed when they find a crease and can run away from defenders who take bad angles and don’t tackle well. Tennessee’s defense has been solid against the run this season and did a nice job against Davis and company in last year’s game, so I have to think they will at least be able to hold them in check this year.
Offensively, Tennessee looks to have more advantages against South Carolina than they have had against most other teams on their schedule. South Carolina is dead last in the SEC in scoring defense and has given up points in bunches all season both on the ground and through the air, so Tennessee’s offense should be able to find a few things that work for them in this game. Josh Dobbs came off the bench against Alabama and ignited this football team emotionally while adding a clear element to the offense that had been missing in previous games. Dobbs’ ability to make plays with his feet will give this offense a much more versatile attack and should prove problematic for a South Carolina offense that has struggle mightily against mobile quarterbacks all season.
Jalen Hurd told the media this week that the addition of Dobbs opened up running lanes against Alabama that the running backs hadn’t seen all season. I expect that to continue this weekend for both Jalen Hurd and Marlin Lane, who could be in line to have their biggest game of the season this weekend. South Carolina has also struggled all season long to stop plays that feature a direct snap to the running back, so don’t be surprised to see the ‘Thundering Hurd’ package used more this week than it has been up to this point – especially if Tennessee has success with it early.
I promise this isn’t a homer pick…I just truly don’t see any particular area where I can give South Carolina a decisive advantage in this game. The game being in Williams-Brice stadium will certainly help the Gamecocks in this one – but how excited is their crowd going to be for a freezing cold night game after a disappointing 4-4 start to the season? My guess is the crowd isn’t a factor in this one, and Tennessee’s young offense will benefit greatly from the ability to communicate on the road. Josh Dobbs, Jalen Hurd, Marlin Lane and Tennessee’s defense carry the day. Pick: Big Orange 34-24
MVP: Tennessee Quarterback Josh Dobbs
I expect Josh Dobbs to take his first start of the 2014 season and never look back. What Dobbs was able to accomplish last week against the Tide proves that he has the ability to create tremendous problems for opposing defenses, and I think he does just that for South Carolina in this game. I expect him to make plays on the ground early and often, which will also free up space for other players to impact the game in a big way. Auburn’s Nick Marshall had 89 rushing yards and three touchdowns against the Gamecock defense last week while also throwing for 139 yards and another score. I don’t know that Dobbs will account for four touchdowns on Saturday, but I definitely think he puts up more total yards than Nick Marshall’s 228. If Dobbs can build on last week’s performance and limit his mistakes, he will lead the Vols to a victory in this game.
The Gamecocks will be looking to avenge Tennessee’s 23-21 victory in Knoxville last year; a game which cost South Carolina a trip to the SEC Championship Game. I had this game ranked as the 4th-toughest on Tennessee’s schedule prior to the season, but that was clearly too high given South Carolina’s struggles. Spurrier’s squad was supposed to win the SEC East this year thanks to returning a veteran offensive line, senior QB Dylan Thompson, workhorse running back Mike Davis and the majority of their defensive starters. A season-opening loss to Texas A&M quickly proved expectations were too high.
South Carolina’s defense ranks dead last in the SEC in points allowed and yards allowed per play and second to last in turnovers forced (9). They’ve been atrocious as they transition from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and Tennessee’s offense, with new life under expected starter Josh Dobbs, could be in for a big day. The Gamecocks have been particularly susceptible to the run this season. Dobbs, Hurd and Lane will have a chance to put up some massive numbers this weekend. Tennessee’s young offensive line seemed to find its stride a bit against Alabama. South Carolina ranks dead last in the SEC in sacks (with 8) so if the Vol OL can come close to replicating its performance against the Tide, Tennessee will score a ton of points.
While the Vol offense should have a big day, Tennessee’s defense is in for a challenge. Dylan Thompson is on pace to break South Carolina’s single season yardage record and the Gamecock offense is humming. Mike Davis ranks fifth in the SEC in rushing yards per game and Thompson ranks second in the league in passing years per game. Tennessee will have to contend with a talented receiving corps featuring three of the top 25 receivers in the league in receiving yards per game. They don’t have an Amari Cooper, but they have a deep group that will pose problems for UT’s secondary.
Look for Tennessee’s athletic defensive line to impact the game in ways they weren’t able to against Alabama. The Vols’ athleticism upfront will be a difficult matchup for USC’s offensive line. If the Vols are able to pressure Thompson with their front four and keep Davis relatively in check, Tennessee will have a great shot at the upset.
The Vols always play South Carolina extremely tough and Tennessee will have a negligible talent edge. I’ve gone back and forth all week on this game. Nothing about the numbers say to pick South Carolina. Tennessee’s defense is better and forces turnovers and the Vol offense, though it has been struggling, should pose a ton of problems for USC’s porous defense.
I’ve been of the “I’ll believe it when I see it” school of thought with the Vols after their loss to Florida but I like the potential of Dobbs and think this could be a breakout game for the Vols. Since beating Georgia, South Carolina has been abysmal in big moments. They let Missouri escape Columbia with a win. They chocked against Kentucky. They had a shot to knock off Auburn, but couldn’t come through in the clutch. I picked them this morning on Rocky Top Insider Radio, but think, for once, the Vols are facing a team that’s worse than them when the pressure is on. Maybe this is the cough syrup talking, but defense still matters in this league and the Vol defense will make enough plays to escape with a victory. Pick: Volunteers 31-27
MVP: Vol Quarterback Josh Dobbs
I wrote a feature on Dobbs earlier this week in part because I think he has loads of potential. Dobbs is one of four Vol QBs in the last 24 years to put up 20 points on Alabama. He single-handedly rushed for more yards than Alabama came into the game allowing. Even if he turns it over a couple times, his ability to make plays can overcome them. He limits the turnovers against a terrible USC defense and breaks the game open with a long run. Hurd has a big day too thanks to some big running lanes created by defenses respecting Dobbs’ ability to run.