The Tennessee Volunteers (3-4, 1-3 SEC) and South Carolina Gamecocks (3-3, 2-2) will meet inside Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday night for one of the SEC’s more hotly contested rivalries in recent memory. Each of the last six games in the series has been decided by no more than six points, including a 15-9 affair last season in Knoxville that came down to the final play. That game ultimately went in favor of the Gamecocks to give them their second consecutive victory against the Volunteers. Tennessee still holds a substantial lead in the all-time series with a record of 25-9-2. Saturday night’s SEC tilt will be pivotal for both teams in terms of reaching bowl eligibility at season’s end.
South Carolina enters the matchup against Tennessee fresh off a bye week, looking to bounce back from a tough 26-23 loss to Texas A&M. The Gamecocks currently sit in fourth place in the SEC East standings, which is certainly not where they envisioned themselves before the season started. They will now look to gain some much-needed traction by defeating the Vols for the third year in a row. If successful, Will Muschamp would extend his perfect 6-0 record against Tennessee as a head coach (including his tenure at Florida).
Jeremy Pruitt’s Volunteers are also looking to rebound from a tough loss. Tennessee fell hard to rival Alabama by a score of 58-21, just one week removed from the big upset victory at Auburn. The Vols, who currently reside in fifth place in the SEC East, will now attempt to regroup and play the role of spoiler on the road at South Carolina. A victory would give the upset-minded Volunteers their second conference win of the season and a big boost of confidence for the stretch run.
Tennessee at South Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday Oct. 27 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: South Carolina -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The ground game
Tennessee and South Carolina have both struggled to get things going on the ground this season. That has been particularly true over the last three games for each of these teams. South Carolina has averaged just 3.3 yards per carry over its last three games, while Tennessee’s run game has been almost non-existent in its last three contests, averaging a woeful 1.8 yards per carry. To make matters worse, neither team has scored a rushing touchdown during that stretch.
Both teams have had difficulty stopping the run this season as well. Tennessee has improved in that regard compared to last season, but the Vols are still allowing a disappointing 162 rushing yards per game, ranking 10th in the SEC. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks are yielding an even more disappointing 179.2 rushing yards per contest to rank 12th in the conference. That is almost forty more yards per game than South Carolina allowed last season. If one of these teams can finally gain some footing in the ground game this week, it could prove to be a decisive factor in the outcome.
2. South Carolina passing game vs. Tennessee pass defense
Jake Bentley’s role as starting quarterback for the Gamecocks appeared to be in jeopardy following Michael Scarnecchia’s standout performance in South Carolina’s win against Missouri. Bentley didn’t help his situation with a rough first half against Texas A&M. He did bounce back nicely in the second half with three touchdown passes against the Aggies. But it’s probably safe to assume that he still has some work to do to restore total faith in his ability to lead the South Carolina offense.
Bentley’s 6.9 passing yards per attempt ranks 12th among starting SEC quarterbacks, and his seven interceptions are tied for the most in the conference. However, Bentley can’t shoulder all the blame. South Carolina’s all-star cast of receivers hasn’t exactly lived up to its lofty preseason billing either. According to CFB Film Room, South Carolina receivers have dropped 14.4 percent of passes that were deemed catchable, the second-highest rate in the SEC this season.
The silver lining is that Bentley and company now have a chance to hit the reset button following last week’s bye. They will face a Tennessee pass defense that ranks 10th in the SEC, allowing 223.1 passing yards and two touchdowns per game. To be fair, the Tennessee pass defense is probably better than the stats suggest after facing two of the best passing attacks in the nation (Alabama and West Virginia). And while the Vols’ young secondary is somewhat vulnerable, they are talented enough to provide a legitimate challenge for a South Carolina passing game that has been anything but consistent.
3. Tennessee passing game vs. South Carolina pass defense
Jarrett Guarantano’s 328 passing yards and two touchdowns in the upset win against Auburn two weeks ago earned the sophomore quarterback SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors. And despite last week’s lopsided loss to Alabama, the Volunteers continued to find success through the air with 227 passing yards and two scores against the Crimson Tide. Grad transfer Keller Chryst did most of the heavy lifting for the Vols’ passing game in that matchup after Guarantano left the game prematurely with a chest injury. The good news is that Guarantano will be ready to go on Saturday night, as Tennessee looks to keep its passing attack rolling against the Gamecocks.
Meanwhile, the South Carolina pass defense is coming off its worst performance of the season, surrendering 353 passing yards in the loss to Texas A&M. However, the Gamecocks have been very solid against the pass overall. For the season, they are giving up just 199.2 passing yards per game (36th in the FBS), with only four passing touchdowns allowed in six games. Additionally, opposing offenses have converted on just 18-of-73 third down attempts against the Gamecocks (fourth best in the nation).
A South Carolina pass rush that has been fairly lackluster to this point will get a big shot in the arm this week as well. Last season's sack-leader D.J. Wonnum will make his first start since suffering an ankle injury in the season-opener. Wonnum was responsible for two of the Gamecock’s seven sacks against the Volunteers last season. His return bodes well against a porous Tennessee offensive line that is once again struggling to keep Guarantano upright on a weekly basis.
Tennessee has already proven that it can go on the road and play the role of spoiler against a superior SEC foe. And if the Vols catch some breaks, another upset is not completely out of the question. But the circumstances are slightly different than they were going into that Auburn matchup. For starters, the Volunteers will be entering a hostile environment at night this time around. And unlike Auburn, a well-rested South Carolina team has had two weeks to regroup and prepare for this game. Tennessee should be able to keep it interesting, but the Gamecocks simply have too much going in their favor.
Prediction: South Carolina 30, Tennessee 24
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.