This could get a little repetitive, but I don’t think Tennessee fans will mind. The Vols were the better team against Kentucky last week, I think they’re the better team against South Carolina this week and they very well may be the better team in every game they play until at least Sept. 24 of next season.
Tennessee is a heavy favorite in this one. Get used to that phrase for the time being. But that doesn’t mean anything is a given going forward either. Though the role of favorite might be newer to UT, it doesn’t come without its own pitfalls. Teams like South Carolina will come to Neyland Stadium without a ton to lose. They’ll play loose, aggressively and know that if they can get UT to the fourth quarter, anything can happen because the Vols still haven’t shown they can consistently win close games.
And South Carolina, while sitting as a 17-point underdog in this one, does have some players that can absolutely make you pay if you’re sloppy. Tennessee knows that all too well after Pharoh Cooper absolutely dusted UT’s defense in 2015 to the tune of almost 300 total yards of offense and four touchdowns. That was an absolute clinic of versatility and athleticism. Tennessee can’t let that happen again or it could get interesting on Saturday. Brandon Wilds is a quality running back and interim coach Shawn Elliott, an O-line coach by background, has the Gamecocks running the ball a bit better.
So while I think SC might be able to move the ball in spurts, it’s the defensive side of the ball that I think the Vols can really take advantage of. The math just isn’t good for the Gamecocks. They’re last in the SEC in rushing defense, giving up 215 yards per game on the ground. UT is second in the conference in rushing with an average of 214 yards per contest. The Vols had 344 yards rushing in 2014 in Columbia. That’s a tall order to duplicate that, but I’m also not going to be the one to say that they absolutely can’t.
Much like Kentucky, South Carolina is going to have to throw everything it has in the box if it wants to stop the run. And even if the Gamecocks do make life difficult on the ground for UT, offensive coordinator Mike DeBord has shown that he has enough ways to make inferior defenses pay for selling out too much. Either way, South Carolina shouldn’t be able to stop the Vols offensively with any regularity.
Cooper will make some plays and the Vols won’t play perfectly, but I like UT’s chances and think Vegas is about right as well in this one.
Pick: Tennessee 42, South Carolina 24
MVP: Tennessee QB Joshua Dobbs
Flip a coin for Jalen Hurd or Dobbs here, but I’ll go with the quarterback after he put up ridiculous numbers against South Carolina last year (301 yards passing, 166 yards rushing, 5 total TDs). He’s averaging 301 yards of total offense over the past three weeks this year as well. SC couldn’t stop him last year and I haven’t seen much evidence that the Gamecocks will be able to this year either.
South Carolina has gone from an eleven-win program to the dumpster in a year and a half. I’m not sure I have ever seen a fall from grace quite like what is going on in Columbia right now. Their talent level is poor, their coaching is suspect, and now they come to Knoxville to face a Tennessee team that appears to be clicking on all cylinders…relatively speaking.
The game plan for the Vols is pretty simple this week: Protect the football and defend Pharoh Cooper. I firmly believe that if the Vols can do those two things, then they will leave Neyland Stadium needing just one more victory to secure bowl eligibility. South Carolina will struggle to stop Tennessee’s rushing attack, which means that they will try to stack the box against Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara and Joshua Dobbs. That’s all fine and good, but then they will leave players like Ethan Wolf, Josh Malone, Josh Smith and Von Pearson unaccounted for in the secondary – big mistake. My guess is that Tennessee passes to set up the run – just like Kentucky – and salts this game away fairly early.
Defensively, they have to STOP COOPER. I don’t mean that they should sell out completely and leave other players unguarded, but they need to have two defenders eyeing him at all times. South Carolina is going to hit some plays – and that’s ok – but as long as Cooper is under wraps, they don’t have enough bodies to beat you.
Pick: Tennessee 38-20
MVP: Tennessee quarterback Joshua Dobbs
Dobbs absolutely crushed this South Carolina defense last year, and I think he’s in for another big night in this one. I don’t know if he’ll be able to duplicate the kind of success he had in Columbia in 2014, but another strong performance seems imminent in this matchup.
The Vols are playing their best football of the season and they’ll have a significant talent edge when they face off with the Gamecocks in Neyland at 4 p.m. on Saturday. There’s no reason they shouldn’t continue their march to an 8-4 finish and solid bowl berth.
South Carolina has been atrocious against the run this season and the Vol ground attack has been one of the nation’s best. Dobbs and Hurd shredded SC last year and that duo is demonstrably more dangerous this season. Tennessee should be able to simply pound South Carolina into submission and wear down a discouraged and dismal Gamecock defense. Jones’ Vols have beat up on below average defenses during his tenure and I don’t expect that to change this weekend.
Offensively, South Carolina has been able to do some good things this season. Brandon Wilds has big play ability at running back and Tennessee’s gap discipline will be tested against a solid Gamecock rushing attack. That said, the Vols have a ton of talent on defense they’ve been playing with more confidence the last few weeks. I expect them to make things tough for South Carolina before giving up a few big plays to Wilds and/or Cooper.
Ultimately, South Carolina doesn’t have enough firepower to keep up with Tennessee. The Vols roll.
Pick: Tennessee 49-20
MVP: Tennessee Quarterback Joshua Dobbs
Dobbs’ coming out party came against the Gamecocks last season. With some fans chattering for his benching before the Georgia game, Dobbs turned a corner. He accounted for 430 yards and 5 touchdowns against the Bulldogs and is playing good football right now. Over the last three games Dobbs has completed 60% of his passes for 716 yards and 6 touchdowns while rushing for 188 yards and 4 touchdowns. South Carolina couldn’t stop him last year and they won’t be able to this weekend.