A matchup between the South Carolina Gamecocks and Tennessee Volunteers may not rank among the greatest rivalries in the SEC, but it has been the most competitive pairing in recent memory. Each of the last five games in the series has been decided by three points or less. The Volunteers have won three of those five meetings. However, the Gamecocks did manage to upset the Vols 24-21 in Columbia last season. It was a win that helped propel South Carolina to bowl eligibility, simultaneously dashing any division title aspirations that remained for Tennessee.
South Carolina enters Saturday’s contest in Knoxville riding high off a record-setting three-touchdown performance by its defense in a 48-22 win over Arkansas last week. The Gamecocks are now 4-2 on the season and 2-2 in conference play. Head coach Will Muschamp will look to extend his perfect 5-0 career coaching record against Tennessee (including his stint at Florida), in an effort to keep his Gamecocks afloat in the SEC East.
Things have not gone quite as well for the Volunteers lately, who now sit at 3-2 overall and 0-2 in the SEC. A 41-0 blowout loss to Georgia marked Tennessee’s largest home defeat since 1905 and the Vols’ first shutout loss since 1994. Needless to say, it’s been a heated couple of weeks on Rocky Top, and no one is feeling the burn more than head coach Butch Jones. Tennessee heads into Saturday’s home game against South Carolina in search of its first SEC victory and a much-needed fresh start following last week’s open date.
South Carolina at Tennessee
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 14 at 12:00 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Tennessee -3
Three Things to Watch
1. New look for Tennessee at quarterback
In an effort to jump-start a floundering Tennessee offense, Butch Jones will make a change at quarterback this week, making the switch from junior Quinten Dormady to redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano. Dormady relinquishes the starting job after completing just 55 percent of his passes and averaging 184 passing yards per game. He’s also thrown just as many interceptions as he has touchdown passes (six apiece).
The transition to Guarantano signifies a fresh start for the Tennessee offense. The dual-threat quarterback also brings an added element of athleticism. However, Guarantano lacks experience, and he hasn’t exactly passed the eye test in limited action this season. He’s completed just 12 of 24 pass attempts for 54 yards and a touchdown, most of which came in garbage time against FCS opponent Indiana State.
While Tennessee is desperate to find a spark on offense, it’s a risky move that could easily backfire. Guarantano will be making his first career start against a challenging South Carolina defense that feasted on veteran Arkansas quarterback Austin Allen just last week.
2. South Carolina run game vs. Tennessee run defense
Through six games, South Carolina’s top three rushers — Ty’Son Williams, Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner — have combined for just 528 rushing yards and two touchdowns. As a team, the Gamecocks rank second to last in the SEC with 97 rushing yards per game. That has put much of the offensive burden on quarterback Jake Bentley. However, that might not need to be the case on Saturday against a Tennessee run defense that has been very generous.
The Vols rank dead last in the SEC against the run, giving up an average of 252.6 rushing yards per game. Tennessee also has allowed 11 rushing touchdowns in just five games. It will be vital for the South Carolina backfield to take advantage of this favorable matchup. That said, it’s not completely a given. The Tennessee defense will be fresh after its bye. And South Carolina still has injury concerns along the offensive line.
3. The red zone and turnovers
Aside from the run game, South Carolina’s biggest issue on offense has been converting in the red zone. The Gamecocks have scored only seven touchdowns in 16 trips inside the red zone. Tennessee’s defense could have a cure for that as well. The Vols have allowed opposing teams to come away with 13 touchdowns and three field goals in 17 trips to the red zone. Meanwhile, the Tennessee offense has struggled to score from any point on the field of late.
Turnovers also could play a key role in Saturday’s matchup. The South Carolina defense was particularly opportunistic last week against Arkansas, forcing four turnovers, three of which went directly into the end zone for touchdowns. The Gamecocks have now forced 13 turnovers on the season, tying for the most in the SEC. That does not bode well for a Tennessee offense that has committed 10 turnovers in five games, especially when the Vols are breaking in a first-time starter at quarterback. Ball security will need to be a top priority for Tennessee on Saturday.
The well-rested Volunteers should come out fighting after an embarrassing outing the last time they played in Neyland Stadium. Tennessee also has an elite talent in running back John Kelly to lean on, as well as the No. 1-ranked pass defense in the SEC. The problem is that the South Carolina defense has the luxury of focusing all its attention on stopping Kelly, forcing an unproven Tennessee passing game to beat them through the air. And while Tennessee’s top-ranked pass defense has performed well, Jake Bentley will be the best quarterback that the Vols have faced all season. Even if the they do manage to limit Bentley, Tennessee’s leaky run defense has yet to prove it can stop anyone.
South Carolina is by no means a juggernaut, and I fully expect some improvement from the Volunteers following the bye week. But it’s difficult to believe that Tennessee has fixed its many problems in one week. Therefore, there’s a good chance that the streak of nail-biting finishes in this series comes to an end on Saturday.
Prediction: South Carolina 27, Tennessee 17
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.