The Tennessee Volunteers (4-4, 2-3 SEC) will play host to the South Carolina Gamecocks (3-5, 1-5 SEC) on Saturday to rekindle what has been one of the SEC’s most competitive matchups in recent years. Five of the last ten, and each of the last three meetings between the two schools has been decided by three points or less. An underdog Volunteer team has played the role of spoiler in the previous two meetings, including last year’s thrilling 45-42 come from behind overtime victory in Columbia. The roles are reversed this year with the Gamecocks coming in as a fairly heavy underdog. Will the Gamecocks be able return the favor in Knoxville?
This will be the 34th meeting all time between South Carolina and Tennessee. The Vols hold a healthy advantage in the series with an overall record of 24-7-2 against the Gamecocks. Tennessee has dominated the series at home, winning 15 of the 17 games played in Knoxville. The Volunteers have won the last two meetings by a total of just five points combined.
South Carolina at Tennessee
Kickoff: 4 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: SEC Network
Spread: Tennessee -17
Three Things to Watch
1. Tennessee’s Rushing Attack vs. South Carolina’s Run Defense
A porous Gamecock run defense could be in for a long Saturday trying to contain a potent Vols rushing attack led by Jalen Hurd, Joshua Dobbs, and Alvin Kamara. Tennessee is fresh off of a monster performance on the ground last week against Kentucky, and the Vols' 214 rushing yards per game is currently good enough to rank second in the SEC and 21st nationally.
Meanwhile, the South Carolina run defense can best be described as the exact antithesis of the Vols' rushing attack. The Gamecocks currently rank dead last in the SEC in run defense allowing 215 rushing yards per game on average. South Carolina is also coming off one of their worst performances of the season against the run, giving up a whopping 321 rushing yards and three touchdowns on the ground last week to Texas A&M.
With the exception of linebacker Skai Moore, the Gamecock defense is completely void of playmakers who can consistently stop the run. The Vols should find plenty of success on Saturday exploiting a weak Gamecock run defense that has been especially bad against teams with a mobile quarterback.
2. Can Tennessee Stop Pharoh Cooper?
Pharoh Cooper had a performance for the ages last year against Tennessee. In total, Cooper torched the Vols' defense for a record setting 286 yards and four touchdowns, finding pay dirt as a receiver, runner, and as a passer. As one of the top receivers in the SEC yet again this season, Cooper will be looking to duplicate last year’s performance against the Vols again on Saturday.
The Tennessee coaches and players are well aware of Cooper’s potential to do just that and claim to have a plan to limit the versatile playmaker this time around. A big part of that plan will include Vols' shut down cornerback Cameron Sutton, who will likely be shadowing Cooper throughout the evening. Look for the Gamecocks to counter by moving Cooper around in order to take advantage of mismatches. While he is unlikely to match last year’s lofty performance, Cooper will certainly have an impact one way or another.
3. South Carolina Trickery and a Secret Weapon?
The Gamecock offense is far from elite, but they do have playmakers on that side of the football. Pharoh Cooper is an obvious threat anytime he touches the ball, and Brandon Wilds’ 5.6 yards per carry average suggests top flight potential at running back. Even former walk-on Perry Orth has shown some semblance of ability at quarterback. That being said, South Carolina will likely have to resort to some trickery if they hope to keep pace with the Vols. Look for some "out of the ordinary" play calling by South Carolina's offense and special teams on Saturday.
Another aspect of trickery could include lining up backup quarterback Lorenzo Nunez at multiple positions. Nunez scored a touchdown against Texas A&M on a reverse just last week, and the Gamecock coaching staff has been exploring creative ways to utilize his talents in various roles. South Carolina could benefit from Nunez’s presence against a Vols defense that will be primarily focused on stopping Pharoh Cooper and Brandon Wilds. If Tennessee fails to account for the athletic freshman, Nunez could prove to be the Gamecocks' ace in the hole against the Volunteers.
Interim Head Coach Shawn Elliott has already scored an SEC win for the Gamecocks, and in spite of last week’s close loss at Texas A&M, he seems to have South Carolina heading in a positive direction. Unfortunately, the positive vibe could be short lived as his Gamecocks will have to travel to Knoxville to face a hungry Tennessee team that appears poised to finish strong in spite of facing some adversity of their own this season.
The Tennessee offense is starting to fire on all cylinders with the long awaited arrival of a down field passing attack. The Vols' defense is still inconsistent at times, but it has shown improvement in recent weeks thanks in large part to the emergence of a potent pass rush. To top it off, the Volunteers may just have the best special teams in the country with return specialists Evan Berry, Cameron Sutton, and Alvin Kamara to go along with the phenomenal punting of Trevor Daniel.
The South Carolina offense seems to have found a little mojo of its own of late, and they certainly have some weapons capable of inflicting damage against Tennessee in this matchup. Sadly, the Gamecock offense still doesn't have enough to compensate for a terrible defense. The South Carolina defense continues to be the equivalent of a dumpster fire, and they have virtually no chance at stopping Tennessee’s offense on Saturday. Unlike previous years, this one is unlikely to end in spectacular fashion.
Prediction: Tennessee 41, South Carolina 27
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McVey is a diehard Tennessee Volunteers' fan who loves singing "Rocky Top" every opportunity he gets. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.