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Opponent Preview: South Carolina

(Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports)

Record: 3-3 (2-3 SEC)
Head Coach: Will Muschamp, 3rd year (18-14 overall)
Location: Columbia, South Carolina

Leading Passer: Jake Bentley (Jr.) — 101-of-167, 1,151 yards, 10 TD, 7 INT
Leading Rusher: Rico Dowdle (Jr.) — 83 carries, 356 yards, 2 TD
Leading Receiver: Deebo Samuel (RS Sr.) — 33 receptions, 382 yards, 4 TD
Leading Tackler: T.J. Brunson (Jr.) — 35 tackles, 3.5 TFL, 0.5 sack, PD

South Carolina came into this season hoping to at least compete for second place in the SEC East and maybe even challenge Georgia for the division crown.

But this year hasn’t gone as planned. At all.

The Gamecocks were dominated by the Bulldogs in the second game of their season. Georgia came up to Columbia and handed South Carolina a 41-17 loss, and it was never even a close contest. The Gamecocks then beat up on Vanderbilt before getting physically out-matched by Kentucky in a 24-10 loss that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. They then survived a shootout with Missouri to win 37-35 only to follow that up with a 26-23 loss to Texas A&M in a game that saw them fight back after falling down 16-0 to tie the game up at 16-all with mere seconds left in the third quarter.

That leaves the Gamecocks right at .500 on the season and already with three conference losses. That’s a far cry from where South Carolina fans were hoping to be at this point in the year.

South Carolina has put themselves in this position because of sloppy play, lack of explosive defensive plays, and poor offensive showings. Junior quarterback Jake Bentley was supposed to take another step forward in his progression as the Gamecocks’ signal caller this year, but instead he’s taken a step back. He’s tied for the most interceptions in the SEC with seven, and he has had issues making the right reads. South Carolina’s rushing attack hasn’t been all that effective either, averaging just 153.7 yards per game, which is the third-fewest yards per game in the conference.

The Gamecocks are tied for last in the SEC in turnover margin, having given the ball away five more times on the year than they’ve taken it away from opponents. South Carolina has 12 giveaways compared to just seven takeaways.

On defense, South Carolina has been one of the worst in the SEC when it comes to stopping the run. They’re giving up almost 180 yards per game on the ground to opponents, and they’ve allowed 11 rushing touchdowns in six games.

But South Carolina does have a few things in their favor when they face-off with Tennessee this weekend.

The Gamecocks are coming off a much-needed bye week and have had an extra week to prepare for the Vols. Not only that, but arguably their best defender, DJ Wonnum, is returning from injury to play Tennessee. Saturday will mark the first game for the junior defensive lineman since the Gamecocks’ first game of the year against Coastal Carolina. He tallied three tackles and a tackle for loss in that game, and he was coming off a sophomore season in which he had six sacks and 13 tackles for loss in 13 games.

The Vols will have to watch out for him while they’re on offense. But they did get dealt some good news when it was revealed that two grad transfer defensive backs, Nick Harvey and J.T. Ibe, won’t be playing on Saturday.

On offense, South Carolina has a dangerous duo of receivers in Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards. Samuel will be one of the better athletes the Vols have faced all season, and Edwards is a more than capable receiver in his own right, having caught 28 passes for 351 yards and a team-high five touchdowns.

Jake Bentley has been turnover-prone while leading South Carolina’s offense, but he’s thrown for over 250 yards in three of the five games he’s played this season.

But there’s been a bit of a quarterback controversy surrounding the Gamecocks ever since the Missouri game.

Bentley got hurt and didn’t play when the Gamecocks took on Missouri. Instead, veteran backup Michael Scarnecchia led the offense and threw for 249 yards and three touchdowns without tossing a single interception in the 37-35 win.

It’s unlikely Scarnecchia will see the field on Saturday unless Bentley gets hurt again or plays disastrously, but that will be worth monitoring. For whatever it’s worth, Bentley has been spot-on when he’s played the Vols so far in his career, completing 68.2 percent of his passes for 296 yards, two touchdowns, and no interceptions in two starts against Tennessee.

It’s clear that the Gamecocks are flawed, and they have plenty of holes the Vols can take advantage of. But they’ve had an extra week to prepare, and even with the injuries in the secondary, South Carolina’s pass defense has been fairly good this season. And their offense has big play ability if they can keep the turnovers to a minimum.

South Carolina’s season hasn’t gone as planned up to this point, but this game on Saturday could salvage their season if they manage to win it. Or it could blow their whole season wide open if Tennessee beats them.

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