No. 18 Tennessee (5-2, 2-2 SEC) at South Carolina (3-4, 1-4 SEC)
Saturday, 7:15 pm ET
Williams-Brice Stadium (80,250) • Columbia, S.C.
Series Record: Tennessee leads 25-7-2
Setting the table
After a much, much needed bye week, the Vols return to the field Saturday night for an SEC road contest in Columbia. Nobody is pretending that the Gamecocks are great. But most everybody also realizes that Tennessee, outside of a dominant performance in the second half at the Battle at Bristol, hasn’t exactly blown anybody out this year.
And the Gamecocks, still finding their way under first-year coach Will Muschamp, have made it difficult for opponents this year. They only have one win in conference play, but have kept each game within two scores – including a 9-point loss to Texas A&M in Columbia a few weeks ago. History is on the side of predicting a close game as well. The last four contests in this series have come down to the final possession.
Vegas has the Vols as a 13-point favorite, but nobody would be surprised to see this one come down to the wire. The Vols are looking for their most complete game of the season. If they get that, they certainly could win decisively. But any “W” would work for a UT team that needs to win out, and get just one SEC loss from Florida, to return to Atlanta for the first time since 2007.
Who has the edge
When Tennessee throws…
If there’s one area this South Carolina team has excelled statistically, it’s passing defense. The Gamecocks come into Saturday’s matchup second in the conference in that category, giving up just 183.6 yards per game. South Carolina’s schedule hasn’t exactly been loaded with high-powered passing attacks, but even against a competent team like Texas A&M, the Gamecocks only gave up around 200 yards through the air. They should challenge UT, which comes in seventh in the SEC in passing offense, in this area. The Vols will look to establish the run first, but must hit a few shots through the air. Joshua Dobbs should look to Josh Malone and Jauan Jennings to do just that, though SC will certainly make it difficult at times. Edge: Slightly to South Carolina
When Tennessee runs…
Big numbers are there for the taking for Jalen Hurd on Saturday. With Alvin Kamara (knee) out, it’ll be Hurd’s show, and he’ll take on a South Carolina rush defense ranked 10th in the SEC. Hurd has averaged over 100 yards per game on the ground in two career games against the Gamecocks. Tennessee will be hoping for a third on Saturday. But expect South Carolina Will Muschamp, who knows UT won’t have quite as many threats to stretch the field out with Kamara on the shelf, to load up in the middle to make sure Hurd doesn’t beat him. That could open up some opportunities for Joshua Dobbs, John Kelly and perhaps an X-factor such as Tyler Byrd, to get some opportunities to get out wide for some big plays. One way or another, the Vols should put up respectable numbers on the ground. Edge: Tennessee
When South Carolina throws…
For the third time this season, Tennessee will face a true freshman quarterback. South Carolina is expected to start Jake Bentley, a player who enrolled at South Carolina after his junior year of high school. The redshirt came off last week against UMass, and he played pretty well. This will be a bigger challenge, however. The Vols have been susceptible at times in pass defense, but you have to think that Derek Barnett and the defensive front will be able to rattle such an inexperienced player at quarterback. Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards are players to watch out for at receiver, but overall UT should have the advantage in this area. Edge: Tennessee
When South Carolina runs…
The Gamecocks simply don’t have any identity in the run game. A.J. Turner got most of the work early in the season, but it was Rico Dowdle and David Williams – two bigger backs – who saw most of the work against UMass. Expect all three to play against UT, but the results haven’t been pretty. The Gamecocks are last in the SEC by a wide margin in rushing offense at 107 yards per game. The Vols are a little beat up in the defensive front seven, and have taken their lumps against powerful run offenses in recent weeks, but there will be no excuse this week. Darrin Kirkland Jr.’s return is a nice boost to the linebackers, and the Vols, despite a historically poor performance against Alabama, should bounce back in this area. Edge: Tennessee
On special teams…
Trevor Daniel is the better punter in the game, while kickers Aaron Medley and Elliott Fry are comparable statistically. UT has the edge at kickoff return with Evan Berry, but punt returner is a toss-up as the Vols are down to their third option after losing Kamara and Cam Sutton. Edge: Slightly to Tennessee
Best-case scenario for UT
Tennessee looks well-rested, healthier and comes out and puts together its most complete performance of the year. The Vols have a comfortable lead in the fourth quarter, get the starters out of the game to keep them fresh for the stretch run.
Worst-case scenario for UT
Any loss would be somewhat of a disaster for the Vols. It would significantly hurt their chances of winning the East and would lead to a lot of unrest in the fanbase. Even though the Vols are still a little banged up, there still would be no excuse for dropping this one.
How we think it’ll play out
All of us think that this could be a close game, but we’re also expecting Tennessee to get the win. That close to perfect game for UT is still out there, and the Vols will probably blast at least one or two of their remaining opponents, but it’s tough to say who those will be. South Carolina’s defense is decent enough that it’s tough to see the Vols torching it, but its offense is inept enough that UT should be able to get the road victory.