Tennessee Volunteers vs. South Carolina Gamecocks Complete Game Preview
Tennessee and coach Butch Jones get another opportunity for that elusive "signature win" when South Carolina rolls into Knoxville on Saturday.
This will be the first time the Vols have taken the field since a 34-31 overtime heartbreaker against Georgia two weekends ago. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks finally found their way, spoiling Arkansas's homecoming with a 52-7 annihilation of the Hogs last Saturday.
The last time these two teams met, South Carolina survived last Oct. 27 in Columbia 38-35. UT had driven all the way to the USC 19-yard line with 1:08 remaining when Jadeveon Clowney beat Antonio Richardson around the edge, sacked Tyler Bray and forced a fumble. The Gamecocks recovered and ran out the clock.
This year, UT will try to complete the upset. Here's everything you need to know:
Date: Saturday, Oct. 19
Time: Noon ET
Place: Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tenn.
Radio: Vol Network, Gamecocks IMG Sports Network, Sirius/XM Channel 91
Spread: South Carolina by 7.5 according to Sportsbook.com
Tennessee Keys to Victory
Make no mistake, Tennessee had to deal with the pain of being so close against Georgia yet having to chalk up another mark in the loss column.
The good news for the Vols is they had an off week to clear their heads.
Still, with a good team that is clicking offensively coming into town for an early kickoff, they can't afford to have any hangover effects. If so, the Gamecocks proved against Arkansas they have the ability to take a team out of its game early and embarrass it.
South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw is one of the most schizophrenic quarterbacks in the SEC. When he's bad, USC can't move the ball. When he's good, he's dynamic.
He has spent his career torching Tennessee.
The Vols have been susceptible to quarterbacks who can beat you with their arm or legs. Shaw certainly has that ability and has beaten UT both ways in his two starts against the Vols.
Butch Jones discussed Shaw's abilities with GoVols247's Wes Rucker:
They’ve been very impressive offensively. Connor Shaw is a good a quarterback as we’ve seen. He has the ability to extend plays with his legs, but his accuracy (is good). He’s very poised, he’s very calm, he’s in control of their offense. They have weapons.
Run Rajion, Run
UT senior running back Rajion Neal has been a workhorse in the past two games. But with backfield mate Marlin Lane set to return from an injury, he'll get some relief.
The Vols hope that means Neal has fresh legs and will only improve as the game matures despite the fact that Neal seems to improve the more work he gets.
It will be an interesting dynamic to watch, but UT will definitely get its star plenty of touches. The Vols need them to be productive ones.
South Carolina Keys to Victory
Wear 'Em Down
Tennessee's defense has been opportunistic, but it hasn't been statistically very good.
The Vols struggle to get off the field on third downs, and since they aren't very deep, that shows up later in games. Georgia was eventually able to break through for two long scoring drives late in the game even when UT had the momentum.
South Carolina has that ability to sustain long drives on the ground and through the air. When plays break down as they did the last time USC came to Neyland Stadium in 2011, Connor Shaw gained first downs with his legs.
If the Gamecocks control the time of possession, they'll eventually wear down a thin UT defense.
Neutralize a Dimension
Against Georgia, the Vols were able to throw the football down field and gain positive yardage on the ground.
That said, South Carolina's defense hasn't been nearly as porous as the Dawgs', however.
USC's vaunted defensive line against UT's offensive line will be the battle of the game, but the Vols should be able to pick up some rushing yards. If USC allows Justin Worley to throw the ball successfully as well, Tennessee has an advantage.
South Carolina has got to take either Neal or Worley out of the equation.
Work the Middle
After being embarrassed across the middle of the field all year, UT finally did some positive things in the second half against Georgia, bringing a safety down to help the nickel and getting better coverage out of the linebackers.
Then, Aaron Murray hit a spread-out Vols defense on a run up the middle for 70 yards.
A lack of team speed has killed the Vols in the middle this year, and USC has some speedy receivers and a big target in tight end Rory Anderson. It should pound UT on quick slants and throws to the tight end until UT proves it can stop that.
Players to Watch for Tennessee
Alton "Pig" Howard
Until Howard's crushing fumble on a full-effort play to end UT's chances of beating Georgia in overtime, he was the Vols' biggest offensive weapon.
Howard had 116 total yards on 10 touches in a coming-out party of sorts. Now, the ultra-competitive sophomore from Orlando has to put that forgettable finish behind him and keeps building on what looks like a promising future.
Tennessee will look to get him the ball however it can. The Gamecocks need to account for him on every play. If they shut him down, UT has still struggled to find consistent playmakers.
The freshman cornerback has been a bright spot for UT all season, but he'll get one of his biggest tests this weekend against Bruce Ellington, if he plays.
The two-sport star has 332 receiving yards and is averaging nearly 16 yards per catch. For a corner like Sutton who hasn't allowed a big play all season, that's a challenge. The Gamecocks will look to pick on a true freshman, and even if Ellington can't go, Shaq Roland is more than capable. Sutton must be ready.
One good half doesn't make a quarterback.
Despite Worley's second-half surge that led UT to come back and take a late lead against Georgia, the junior from Rock Hill now has to continue to show progression. He has been inconsistent all season, and UGA's pass defense ranks 12th in the league.
The Vols go how Worley goes. So, the question remains: Will UT get the quarterback who could do no wrong against the Dawgs or the one who previously lost his job?
Players to Watch for South Carolina
He has been brilliant this year, and South Carolina was a totally different team when he was on the sideline.
Now seemingly healthy, Shaw is coming into his own as a quarterback and has 10 touchdowns and no interceptions, along with gaining 319 rushing yards this season. Shaw isn't as dynamic as Oregon's Marcus Mariota, but he will pose similar problems to UT's defense. The Vols have to find a way to contain him.
They haven't done that in two years.
There has been talk that he's lazy or mailing in the season, but the bottom line is when Clowney is at his best, he's the best defensive player in college football.
Tennessee can't forget that.
All eyes will always be on Clowney, but UT has to ensure he doesn't disrupt the offense before it gets the chance to go downhill.
South Carolina's star running back chose the Gamecocks over UT a couple seasons ago when he was former Vols running backs coach Jay Graham's top target.
Now he has blossomed into the star both teams thought he'd be. Davis is averaging 123 rushing yards per contest and has nine touchdowns. UT has been pretty good against bruiser backs like Davis, but if he has a big game, it'll be a long day for the Vols.
What They Are Saying
Despite the disappointing season for Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina hasn't seen a major drop off in defensive production.
ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough noted much of that is due to the emergence of defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles, who earned midseason defensive MVP from the writer:
This was supposed to be Clowney's spot, hands down. He was supposed to be considered the Defensive MVP of the country. But as of today Clowney doesn't lead his team in tackles, sacks or tackles for loss. With that said, the distinction of defensive MVP at South Carolina has to go to Quarles, who is in the top 10 in tackles (15), is second in tackles for loss (5) and leads all Gamecocks with five sacks. The 298-pound junior is second on the team with two quarterback pressures for good measure.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones traveled to Bristol, Tenn. for the official announcement of the "2016 Battle of Bristol" game against Virginia Tech at the Bristol Motor Speedway.
While that seemed to be a change of schedule for UT, which had an off day, Jones told GoVols247's Wes Rucker that wasn't the case.
We’ve had a bye week. We’ve had a work week. We practiced Sunday, so with NCAA rules and regulations, you have to give them a day off (every week), and Monday’s their day off. And this schedule, in terms of practicing on Sunday and having Monday off, has been in the works since the middle of January. So this has absolutely no effect on preparations or anything in terms of getting ready for South Carolina.
South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has been coaching long enough to see a game like last Saturday's 52-7 win over Arkansas have opposite effects on a team.
According to GoUpstate.com's Matt Connolly, Spurrier said in his Sunday press conference:
It's either going to give us confidence or overconfidence, one or the other. It depends on how we handle it. Hopefully it'll be the confidence and not the overconfidence.
As coaches, if you've been around long enough, you see it happen both ways. Hopefully our guys will handle it. As coaches we will certainly try our best to remind them the way we played in the past, barely, barely beating Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Central Florida.
Tennessee 27, South Carolina 21
That Georgia game wasn't a fluke. This Tennessee team is legitimately getting better and better, and there seems to be a sense of growing confidence on a team that continues to identify playmakers.
On paper, there is very little to suggest that the Vols can hang with South Carolina, but an argument can be made this matchup is perhaps the most conducive to an upset of any remaining on UT's schedule.
The Vols get USC at an opportune time: after a domination of Arkansas and before another road trip to suddenly dangerous and undefeated Missouri. It's a trap game for the Gamecocks, who'll come in overconfident.
Justin Worley and Tennessee's offense found some things in that second half against UGA. They also are expecting to get much healthier with the probable return of running back Marlin Lane and wide receiver Devrin Young.
The last time UT beat a ranked opponent was South Carolina in Neyland in 2009. The Vols are due.