The Tennessee Volunteers and South Carolina Gamecocks will meet in Knoxville on Saturday for a matchup between SEC East foes and first-year head coaches Josh Heupel and Shane Beamer. "Dark Mode" will be the theme for the home team Vols, who will be wearing black uniforms for the first time since defeating the Gamecocks 31-13 on Halloween night back in 2009.
It was a coming-out party for Heupel's offense last Saturday, as Tennessee racked up 683 yards and scored on all but one of its possessions in a 62-24 road win over Missouri. The Vols rushed for 458 yards in the blowout victory — the most since 1951 and the most ever in a road matchup. Now 3-2 overall and 1-1 in SEC play, Tennessee will look to carry that momentum into its first conference game of the season inside Neyland Stadium against the upset-minded Gamecocks.
South Carolina took a brief hiatus from conference action last Saturday, rebounding from back-to-back SEC losses against Georgia and Kentucky, with a 23-14 win over Troy in Columbia. The Gamecocks held the Sun Belt's Trojans to 308 yards of offense and capitalized on four turnovers to improve their overall record to 3-2. Still 0-2 in SEC play, South Carolina will head to Knoxville with its sights set on its first conference victory of the season.
Tennessee leads the all-time series against South Carolina 27-10-2. The Vols have won each of the last two meetings, including a 31-27 win last season in Columbia.
South Carolina at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 9 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Tennessee -10.5
When South Carolina Has the Ball
An offense that averages 328 yards and 22.4 points per game is still very much a work in progress under new coordinator Marcus Satterfield. Sophomore quarterback Luke Doty will look to build off his best performance of the season, throwing for 255 yards and a touchdown against Troy. However, Doty has been fairly underwhelming overall in his three starts, completing 58.8 percent of his passes for 566 yards with three touchdowns and an interception.
Big-play wide receiver Josh Vann has emerged as the target of choice with a team-high 16 catches for 343 yards and two touchdowns, averaging an SEC-best 21.4 yards per catch. But the Gamecocks could surely use more help from a receiving corps that features just two other players, Jalen Brooks and Dakereon Joyner (11 each), that have reached double-digit receptions through five games.
While the passing attack has a lot to improve upon, it will likely be the Gamecocks' best avenue for success offensively on Saturday. Tennessee allows 239.4 passing yards per game, which ranks 80th nationally and 12th in the SEC. That said, the Vols rank 34th nationally in terms of yards allowed per pass attempt (6.5) and have just as many interceptions (6) to their credit as touchdown passes allowed (6). The Vols' best player defensively also lurks in the secondary in senior defensive back Theo Jackson. In addition to leading the Vols in tackles (37) and tackles for a loss (6.5), Jackson is tied for the SEC lead with six passes defended.
South Carolina was expected to feature one of the top rushing attacks in the conference this season with the return of Kevin Harris — the SEC's leading rusher from a season ago. But that has yet to materialize for a Gamecocks run game that has produced just one rushing touchdown while averaging a lackluster 121.2 yards per game. Harris has struggled to return to form following offseason back surgery, producing just 149 rushing yards on 46 carries. The Gamecocks also hoped to get more from former 5-star running back MarShawn Lloyd, who has just 101 yards on 30 attempts. True freshman Juju McDowell has been solid, gaining 146 yards on 33 carries, while senior ZaQuandre White leads all South Carolina running backs with 167 rushing yards and a touchdown on 22 attempts. But most of White's damage came in the season opener against FCS Eastern Illinois, and he has not touched the football in the last two games. In terms of the matchup, it could be tough sledding for the Gamecocks against a strong Tennessee run defense on Saturday. The Vols allow just 104 yards per game on the ground, which ranks 24th nationally and fourth in the SEC.
When Tennessee Has the Ball
An offense that is averaging 474.4 yards and 40.8 points per game will look to build off of last week's explosive performance against Missouri. That showing helped Hendon Hooker earn sole possession of the starting quarterback job for the Vols. The dual-threat signal-caller has been extremely efficient in leading the Tennessee attack, completing 68.5 percent of his passes for 838 yards with 10 touchdowns against only one interception. Hooker's 182.4 passer rating ranks second in the SEC, and his 9.4 yards per pass attempt ranks third in the conference. He's also done well with his legs, producing 216 yards and a pair of scores on the ground.
Wide receiver Velus Jones Jr. leads the Vols in receptions (16) and receiving yards (239), while speedy wide receiver JaVonta Payton has emerged as a deep threat, averaging 22.3 yards per catch and finding the end zone in each of the last three games.
The Vols' passing attack will be put to the test on Saturday against a stingy South Carolina defense that gives up 160.4 passing yards per game (12th in the FBS, third in the SEC). The Gamecocks also lead the SEC with nine interceptions. Defensive back Jaylan Foster has been a force to be reckoned with for the South Carolina defense, generating an SEC-best six turnovers (4 INTs, 2 forced fumbles). Foster also leads the Gamecocks' in tackles with 39 stops.
Tennessee's best opportunity to exploit the South Carolina defense will come on the ground. The Gamecocks have been decent against the run overall, surrendering 141.2 yards per game. But they have not fared as well against SEC competition, giving up 207 yards per contest in conference play. That bodes well for a Tennessee run game that ranks seventh nationally and second in the SEC, averaging 255 yards per game. Running back Tiyon Evans (57 att., 367 yds., 5 TDs), who is coming off a monster performance against Missouri, spearheads the potent Tennessee ground attack.
The Vols will not be able to move the ball at will as they did last week against Missouri. And they will need to be extremely careful with the ball against an opportunistic South Carolina defense that has already generated an SEC-best 14 turnovers. That said, Tennessee has plenty of momentum on offense right now, and a lackluster South Carolina attack is going to have trouble putting points on the board against a stout Tennessee defense on the road.
Prediction: Tennessee 27, South Carolina 17
Podcast: Week 6 Preview and Predictions + Picks Against the Spread
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.