The rivalry between the Tennessee Volunteers and South Carolina Gamecocks may not rank among the all-time greats in the SEC. But it has become one of the most competitive in the conference in recent memory, with each of the last seven games in the series decided by six points or fewer. That includes last season’s 27-24 affair in Columbia that fell in favor of the Gamecocks to secure their third consecutive win against the Volunteers. The South Carolina victory also helped Will Muschamp extend his perfect record as a head coach against Tennessee to 7-0 (including his tenure at Florida). Tennessee still holds a substantial lead in the all-time series with a record of 25-10-2.
Both teams are coming off disappointing losses that included some tough luck and questionable officiating.
South Carolina took a 20-17 lead into the fourth quarter against ninth-ranked Florida. But the Gamecocks could not cash in on an opportunity to secure back-to-back upsets against top-10 SEC foes, eventually falling victim to the Gators by a score of 38-27 inside a rain-soaked Williams-Brice Stadium last Saturday. The Gamecocks (3-4, 2-3 SEC) will now attempt to bounce back against the Vols in Knoxville in a game that could ultimately decide their postseason fate.
Just one week removed from scoring its first SEC win of the season at home against Mississippi State, an improving Tennessee squad fared better than expected in its annual "Third Saturday in October" matchup against top-ranked Alabama. However, the Vols still came up well short on the scoreboard in a 35-13 loss to the rival Crimson Tide in Tuscaloosa. The upset-minded Volunteers (2-5, 1-3) will look to regroup against the Gamecocks on Saturday in a bid to garner some much-needed momentum for the stretch run and possibly salvage what’s left of their bowl hopes.
South Carolina at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 26 at 4:00 p.m. ET
Spread: South Carolina -4.5
When South Carolina Has the Ball
South Carolina will likely bank on its run game to do most of the heavy lifting offensively against the Vols on Saturday. The Gamecocks currently boast the fourth-best rushing attack in the SEC (36th in the country), averaging 197 yards per game. While the Vols have improved their efforts to defend the run of late, it remains their biggest weakness defensively.
They may catch a slight break with featured South Carolina running back Rico Dowdle expected to miss Saturday’s contest with a knee injury. However, senior running backs Tavien Feaster and Mon Denson are more than capable of picking up the slack against the Vols. In fact, Feaster (492 rushing yards, 4 TDs) has now supplanted Dowdle as the Gamecock's leading rusher after racking up a career-high 175 yards and a touchdown on the ground last week against Florida. Meanwhile, Denson averages a team-best 7.0 yards per carry.
The Volunteers will most likely load the box to slow down the South Carolina ground attack and force freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski to beat them with his arm. Hilinski has struggled with his accuracy this season, particularly on deep passes. And if the USC run game isn’t clicking, Hilinski will have his work cut out for him against a solid Tennessee pass defense. That being said, the former high school All-American does have the tools to pose a viable threat to Tennessee’s defense with some assistance from the run game and standout wide receivers Bryan Edwards (40 rec., 504 yards, 4 TDs) and Shi Smith (25, 252, TD).
When Tennessee Has the Ball
The Vols' best chance for success may be through the air against a suspect South Carolina pass defense that ranks just 12th in the SEC, allowing 250.6 passing yards per game. However, that could be a tall order without starting quarterback Brian Maurer, who is expected to miss Saturday’s matchup after suffering his second concussion in as many weeks. That leaves Tennessee with a pair of questionable options to choose from at quarterback in Jarrett Guarantano and redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout.
Guarantano has struggled mightily to find consistency this season, particularly in the red zone and in critical down-and-distance situations, which is exactly why he lost the starting job to Maurer in the first place. Meanwhile, Shrout is inexperienced and has been less than impressive in limited action against both UTC and Alabama. The silver lining is that Tennessee does have a solid receiving corps to lean on, led by Jauan Jennings (35 rec., 478 yards, 5 TDs) and Marquez Callaway (14, 272, 3).
The Vols’ quarterback situation may leave them with no choice but to hedge their bets on the run game. The good news here is that Tennessee has made positive strides in that department of late. And with a solid trio of running backs in Ty Chandler, Tim Jordan and Eric Gray — running behind a steadily improving offensive line — the Vols do have a fighting chance on the ground against a South Carolina defense that allows 146 rushing yards per game (9th in the SEC, 55th in the FBS).
The bad news is that Tennessee still ranks dead last in the SEC in terms of yards-per-carry (3.89) and rushing touchdowns (5). And if the Gamecocks opt to load the box to stop the run, which is likely, it will be up to Guarantano and/or Shrout to carry the Tennessee offense.
It wouldn’t come as a complete shock if the Vols pulled off the upset in front of the home crowd on Saturday. But it’s difficult to like their chances in this game with anyone other than Brian Maurer at quarterback. Jarrett Guarantano appears to be a lesser version of the quarterback who already squandered golden opportunities to knock off South Carolina in each of the last two seasons. And it’s highly unlikely that J.T. Shrout can provide the spark that Tennessee desperately needs in the passing game to win this game.
An improving Tennessee defense, one that held No. 1-ranked Alabama to season lows in total yards and points last week, will help keep things interesting against a South Carolina offense that has issues of its own in the passing game. However, the Gamecocks’ edge in the run game should be enough to keep Will Muschamp’s perfect record against the Volunteers intact.
Prediction: South Carolina 27, Tennessee 20
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.