Tennessee’s march to Atlanta got off to a brutal start on Saturday evening, perhaps ending before it truly even got started as the No. 18 Vols fell 24-21 to South Carolina in Columbia.
The Vols now find themselves at 5-3 (2-3 SEC) and in need of a ton of help to get back in the SEC East picture after a promising start to the season. Here are five reasons why the Vols weren’t able to take care of business on the road at South Carolina.
1. Outplayed by a high school senior/college freshman QB
This one is pretty basic. South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley, who enrolled a year early in Columbia and could still be a high school senior, outplayed Tennessee and senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs. Making his first SEC start, Bentley wasn’t perfect, but he withstood the UT pressure to complete 15-of-20 passes for 167 yards, a pair of scores and, perhaps most impressively, no interceptions. Dobbs, on the other hand, served up two costly picks and had the ball knocked out of his hands by freshman Carlin Fils-Aime for a third turnover. South Carolina turned those turnovers into 14 points, and the third one, while not harmful to UT on the scoreboard, did take away some precious time late and ultimately left the Vols without enough clock to finish the comeback attempt.
2. Run defense comes up short
South Carolina came into the evening dead last in the conference in rushing, averaging just over 100 yards per game. The Gamecocks didn’t run wild, but did enough on the ground to hurt Tennessee. Rico Dowdle had 27 carries for 127 yards, marking the seventh time an opposing player has gone for more than 100 yards on UT this season. An injury to Shy Tuttle left the Vols even more depleted inside, and Darrin Kirkland’s return, while at times productive, didn’t give the Vols enough of a boost to shut down a poor South Carolina rushing attack.
3. Backfield shortage
Credit John Kelly, who really stepped up as the primary back with 14 carries for 94 yards and a very respectable 6.7 yards per carry. But with Alvin Kamara on the shelf, Jalen Hurd had a few carries where he didn’t quite look like himself before finishing off the game as a spectator. ESPN later reported that his absence was injury related, but it was tough to say exactly what was going on. The Vols, even without Kamara, had a golden opportunity to pound the ball against a South Carolina defense that came into the game ranked 10th in the league in rushing defense. Kelly, who arguably should’ve had more touches, did his part, but there just wasn’t enough firepower overall to move the ball with consistency.
4. Mistakes pile up
The three turnovers involving Dobbs (though one was arguably Fils-Aime’s fault) were all costly. But there were plenty of other missed tackles, blown coverages and then nine costly penalties for 87 yards that kept UT in bad situations. Negative plays, especially early, contributed to a slow start for Tennessee as well. Again, injuries played a part, but there is no excuse for a veteran-laden team coming off a bye to look so sloppy against a young team led by a quarterback in his first SEC games.
5. Muschamp has Jones’ number
Will Muschamp isn’t exactly on the Mt. Rushmore of SEC coaching. He’s schooled Butch Jones and Tennessee, however. He moved to 3-0 against Jones and 5-0 against UT overall. Credit him for tailoring the offense to fit his young quarterback, and for keeping South Carolina believing after some losses piled up early in the season. Tennessee’s coaching staff, on the other hand, will receive a failing grade for this effort. The Vols looked unorganized and uninterested at times, Mike DeBord didn’t seem to have a particularly effective or aggressive game plan, and while Bob Shoop had his moments with pressure, he still got knocked around a bit by the freshman quarterback and a staff known for offensive ineptitude. It was an unacceptable performance from the staff.