Tennessee vs. South Carolina
When: Saturday, November 7th, 2015
Where: Knoxville, Tenn. (Neyland Stadium)
Odds: Tennessee has an 80.7% chance of winning, per ESPN’s FPI simulations
South Carolina at a glance:
Head Coach: Steve Spurrier (84-45 through 10 years at South Carolina)
All-time record: 584–552–44
2014 results: 7-6 (3-5 SEC); Defeated Miami 24-21 in the Independence Bowl
Returning starters: 12: 4 (offense), 8 (defense)
What a strange year it was for the Gamecocks. Picked to win the SEC East in the preseason after consecutive 11-win campaigns in 2012 and 2013, South Carolina experienced a bizarre roller coaster of ups and downs that ultimately led a 6-6 regular-season campaign.
The season started in horrendous fashion, with Texas A&M coming to Columbia in the season opener and absolutely shelling the Gamecocks’ defense – providing an ominous early sign for a unit that finished the season 13th in the conference in total defense – for 52 points in the Aggies’ 52-28 win.
A few weeks later, that opening loss looked a bit like an anomaly after SC reeled off a trio of wins in a row, most notably a 38-35 victory over Georgia.
Then the season turned even crazier. The Gamecocks, a team that had been clutch under Spurrier in recent years, seemingly found new ways to lose the next four conference games, dropping games to Missouri, Kentucky, Auburn and Tennessee by an average of 4.5 points per game. In the losses to Mizzou, UK and UT, the Gamecocks blew two-score leads in the fourth quarter.
The Gamecocks turned the tables for one week on Florida, pulling off a fierce rally of their own to beat Spurrier’s former team and, ultimately, set themselves up for bowl eligibility. But a sound defeat at the hands of hated rival Clemson was a sour end to a frustrating regular season that the Independence Bowl win did little to provide much consolation for.
Three early questions for the 2015 matchup:
1. What kind of state will South Carolina be in at this point in the season?
SC might be the biggest wild card in the East. The margin was so thin last year for the Gamecocks. If a matter of about three plays had gone differently for them, it could’ve easily been an eight or nine-win football team last year. On the other hand, SC also wasn’t too far from a four or five-win campaign as well. And that could be the story again in 2015 because there are very few games on SC’s schedule that are a sure win or a sure loss. Wins over The Citadel, UCF and Vandy are the only things I feel very confident in predicting at this point on that schedule. So South Carolina could come into the Nov. 7 contest anywhere from contending in the East to something like 2-6.
2. Can South Carolina fix the defense and find a quarterback?
Those are two questions SC must answer to get back in the conversation in the East. With Spurrier’s reputation, he’ll find somebody – either Connor Mitch, Perry Orth or Lorenzo Nunez – to be at least respectable at quarterback. But can that defense get turned around? Spurrier is banking on Jon Hoke, and his NFL background, to come in as the co-defensive coordinator and help fix one of the worst units in the SEC from 2014. There are some pieces, such as linebacker Skai Moore and junior college defensive end transfer Marquavius Lewis, but there’s a long way to go after giving up 30.4 ppg and 432.7 ypg in 2014.
3. Can Tennessee contain Pharoh Cooper?
The name Cooper became synonymous with frustration for Tennessee in 2014. Between Alabama’s Amari Cooper and SC’s Pharoh Cooper, Coopers put up 557 yards of receiving on Tennessee in a two-game span. Amari has moved on from Alabama, but Pharoh returns for his junior season after accounting for 233 yards receiving, 23 yards rushing, 30 yards of passing and four total TDs against the Vols in 2014. The Vols must do a better job of limiting him in 2015 to give themselves their best chance at picking up a third straight win in this series.
How do we expect it to play out?
This one is a little bit tricky. On one hand, Butch Jones is 2-0 against the Gamecocks and there’s a decent chance that South Carolina could be worse in 2015, while the Vols are expected to be better. The game is in Neyland as well, a place SC has only won a few times in history, giving the Vols another edge.
The ESPN Football Power Index simulator gives Tennessee an 80+% chance to win this one. So, as you can see, the numbers say Tennessee should win, and I agree with that assessment.
I’m not ready to declare SC dead yet, though. Last season didn’t go as planned, but as mentioned earlier, it was a bizarre year that could’ve easily gone in a different direction. In 22 years of coaching in the SEC, Spurrier’s had at least eight wins in 17 of those seasons, so don’t expect the Ol’ Ball Coach to go quietly. He promises he won’t.
Consider this one a game Tennessee should win, but it’s not back in the “automatic victory” category right now.