It seems like it’s been about a year since the Vols played, and I’m guessing that’s how the players and coaches feel after enduring a beatdown to Alabama last time they were on the field a couple weeks ago.
But the bye week came at the perfect time, and I expect to see a different Tennessee team on the field in Columbia – one with several players returning to the field, and one that is much healthier and better rested after a brutal gauntlet the previous four weeks.
This South Carolina team under Will Muschamp has been scrappy – keeping every conference game within a couple scores despite a 1-4 mark in SEC play. The SC defense, while not dominant, is good enough to make you work for what you get.
And without Alvin Kamara, big plays might not come easy for the Vols. Joshua Dobbs will need to bottle some of his 2014 South Carolina magic and put up big numbers running and throwing. Jalen Hurd needs to step up as the clear-cut top back, and receivers Josh Malone and Jauan Jennings need to win their one-on-one matchups.
Offensively, South Carolina shouldn’t scare Tennessee much. Quarterback Jake Bentley will be a good player down the road, but there’s no excuse for Tennessee’s defense – even while a little bit banged up still – to let a freshman making his first SEC start carve it up. The run game – which is ranked last in the SEC – also shouldn’t gash UT too much despite poor performances in recent weeks by UT’s run defense against some high-powered attacks.
I think UT can make enough plays offensively, and limit South Carolina enough defensively, to go on the road and get this win. The Vols must, however, avoid costly turnovers and can’t give SC easy points in any form. That’s been an issue for UT is the last two losses, but South Carolina also doesn’t have the overall talent to capitalize the way Texas A&M and Alabama did.
Pick: Tennessee 27-17
MVP: Jalen Hurd
I’m expecting a vintage Jalen Hurd performance on Saturday. Not that he’s been bad this year per se, but he hasn’t taken the steps that I expected as a third-year player who is trying to become one of the top backs in the nation. He’s been banged up and hasn’t gotten consistent O-line play, but the big plays just haven’t been there. With Alvin Kamara on the shelf this week, and against a rushing defense ranked 10th in the SEC, Hurd will have a big game – maybe in the area of 130 yards with a couple touchdowns.
For the first time since the Florida game, the Vols are finally mostly healthy. Yes, Alvin Kamara, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and Cam Sutton will all still be out. But Darrin Kirkland Jr. is expected back, as is most of the starting offensive line. And most of the depth the Vols lost due to injury as well.
And that should be reflected in the final score.
Since the year 2000 began, the Vols and Gamecocks have played 16 times. Only five times during that span has the game been decided by more than one score. The average margin between the two teams over the last 16 games has been 7.8 points. So history points to this one being a close one, just like history said it would be against Georgia as well.
This time, however, I don’t think history can be counted on. And I say that for multiple reasons.
South Carolina has the 102nd-ranked rushing defense in the country. They also have the 122nd-ranked rushing offense. In other words, the Vols should feast on offense and should finally catch a break and be able to stifle an opponent’s rushing attack.
Tennessee hasn’t had a non-offensive touchdown all season, but there’s a good chance that changes against South Carolina. The Gamecocks have already allowed one kickoff return touchdown, and they only kick it back for touchbacks 42.3 percent of the time. Evan Berry will likely be motivated and ready to run.
South Carolina has been able to keep it close against teams all season and have played tough, gritty football. The latter of those isn’t likely to change on Saturday, but the Vols are just too talented for this to be all that close. And if it is, there will be questions to be answered.
Pick: 34-17 Tennessee
MVP: Josh Dobbs
This game has a Josh Dobbs party written all over it. I expect Jalen Hurd to have one of his better games of the season because he’ll be hungry and rested, but Dobbs has put up some of his best performances against South Carolina. The only team he’s thrown for more yards against in his career is Kentucky, and Florida and Vanderbilt are the only two teams he’s run for more yards against in his career. I expect at least 300 total yards and at least three overall touchdowns from Dobbs in this one.