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Tennessee Football’s Matchup With South Carolina Pits Strengths Versus Weaknesses

Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics

Tennessee’s critical week five matchup against South Carolina is unique in the way it often pits one team’s strength against another team’s weakness.

That makes for an intriguing matchup and a fascinating coaching battle in how both Shane Beamer and Josh Heupel can minimize their team’s weaknesses while exploiting their opponent’s.

The advanced analytics reflect each team having strengths that match up against the other’s weakness to varying degrees. Taking a look at those matchups and giving examples of where the analytics may fall short.

Let’s dive in.

Tennessee’s Running Game vs. South Carolina’s Run Defense

This is probably the most dramatic example of a team’s strength matching up with another’s weakness.

According to Efficiency/EPA stats, Tennessee has the nation’s fourth best running game while South Carolina has the 105th best run defense.

The PFF numbers bear this out too. Tennessee’s running game has earned a strong 79.13 grade over the first four games of the season while South Carolina’s run defense has earned just a modest 68.5 grade. The Gamecocks run defense graded out better than 70 only against Furman this season.

The eye-test matches largely matches up. Tennessee relies on its run game and its offense struggled in the one game its run game scuffled in this season. However, I’m not sure South Carolina’s run defense has been as bad as the advanced numbers indicate. The Gamecocks held a solid Mississippi State rushing attack to just 32 yards a week ago.

One of the tough things to track in this matchup is that Tennessee hasn’t played much strong competition this season. Especially compared to South Carolina who has already faced three solid tests.

EPA accounts for level of competition but it’s still hard to quantify how good or bad Tennessee is at anything at this point in the season.

Tennessee’s Passing Game vs. South Carolina’s Pass Defense

This one breaks the trend more than any other category. Tennessee’s passing offense is below average and South Carolina’s is average but neither are dramatic strengths or weakness.

Tennessee’s passing game has earned a 64.13 grade this season according to PFF and South Carolina’s coverage has earned a 64.88 grade and its pass rush has earned 66.63 grade.

The eye test deviates only slightly here. Tennessee’s offense has been average but below average if you remove the screen game. The Vols are limited in what they’re doing in the passing game especially in the intermediate.

South Carolina’s only difference is that its secondary had higher expectations entering the season. But the numbers do match the eye test and after two SEC games and a non conference game against North Carolina it is probably safe to trust them.

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South Carolina’s Passing Game vs. Tennessee Pass Defense

Here in lies the numbers that I truly disagree with. PFF and EPA say this is a really good South Carolina passing attack against a good Tennessee pass defense.

South Carolina’s passing game ranks 26th in EPA and has earned a 75.85 grade according to PFF through four games this season.

Tennessee’s passing defense ranks 41th in EPA and has earned a 75.5 coverage grade and 74.88 pass rush grade according to PFF.

I agree with what the numbers say about South Carolina’s passing offense but less about what they say about Tennessee’s pass defense. I think the Vols’ secondary is much worse than the grades say and their poor level of competition skews them.

However, I’m not willing to say Tennessee’s pass rush grades are inaccurate. Tennessee’s ability to take advantage of a susceptible South Carolina offensive line and pressure Spencer Rattler is of immeasurable importance Saturday night.

South Carolina’s Running Game vs. Tennessee Run Defense

This is perhaps Tennessee’s biggest advantage in this game.

South Carolina’s running game ranks 89th nationally according to EPA and Tennessee’s run defense ranks 15th nationally.

The Vols run defense was bad against Florida. Really bad in the first half. That’s the one area where the eye tests deviates from the numbers. However, there’s reasons to think that the poor half was an anomaly.

Tennessee’s defense has an ability to make South Carolina one dimensional this week.

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