South Carolina (3-4, 1-4 SEC) hosts No. 18 Tennessee (5-2, 2-2) on Saturday night in Columbia. For the Gamecocks, it presents an opportunity for head coach Will Muschamp to get his first signature win at the helm. Muschamp is unbeaten (4-0) as a head coach against the Volunteers, while UT's Butch Jones is 3-for-3 against South Carolina. For Tennessee, this game begins a five-game stretch against the bottom tier of the SEC East and Tennessee Tech. The Vols could be double-digit favorites in every game, but they will need to win them all to represent their division in Atlanta.
Muschamp's Gamecocks have looked pretty bad this season — particularly on offense — and their only wins have come against Vanderbilt, East Carolina and UMass. Still, South Carolina's defense has been good enough to keep the team in games against the likes of Texas A&M and Georgia. The Gamecocks are trying to right the ship for the rest of the season and have made a change at quarterback to help improve their chances for success.
Tennessee, also known as college football's "cardiac kids," appeared to go into cardiac arrest against Alabama two weeks ago. After starting the season 5-0 and soaking up tons of national coverage, the Vols got humbled and lost a bit of their luster with the embarrassing loss to Alabama. But Tennessee is still a top-10-caliber team and still has a lot to play for. The Volunteers could cap off the regular season with 10 wins for the first time since 2003.
The Vols and Gamecocks will meet for 35th time on Saturday. Tennessee leads the series 25-7-2 and has pretty much totally dominated it with the exception of the Steve Spurrier years. The Vols also have won three in a row against South Carolina. However, regardless of the records, these teams have fought each other down to the wire recently. In 2012, the Gamecocks won 38-35, and in Tennessee's three consecutive triumphs, it won by margins of two, three and three points.
Tennessee at South Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 29 at 7:15 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN2
Spread: Tennessee -13.5
1. Tennessee DE Derek Barnett
The Volunteers’ monster defensive end is proving game-by-game that he is Tennessee's best player. And it certainly appears he will be a highly sought-after NFL Draft pick when the time comes next spring. Barnett was the lone bright spot for the Volunteers against Alabama, with a pair of tackles for a loss that at least breathed some brief life into the team. He also caused a sack-fumble on Crimson Tide quarterback Jalen Hurts. Barnett is fourth among SEC players, with six sacks this season, and also ranks second in the SEC with 11.5 tackles for a loss. South Carolina's offensive line is bad... and Muschamp knows it. He told reporters this week that he wanted the Gamecocks to avoid obvious passing situations on Saturday because Barnett would be turned loose. Two years ago in Columbia, Barnett destroyed the Gamecocks' O-line and had three sacks — one of them crucial to help Tennessee seal the win.
2. Gamecocks’ Rushing Attack
Not to belabor a point, but South Carolina’s offensive line is a unit that has not only struggled with pass protection (18 sacks allowed) but also can't run block. The Gamecocks are averaging just 107 rushing yards per game — good for last place in the SEC and 122nd out of 128 FBS teams. It's not just that South Carolina doesn't have an SEC-caliber offensive line; it also is pretty depleted on quality running backs. But maybe there's hope for the Gamecocks in this game. Tennessee's defense has been hampered by injuries, to say the least. The Volunteers will be without defensive linemen Kahlil McKenzie and Danny O'Brien (dismissed) in this game. They'll also be without last year's leading tackler Jalen Reeves-Maybin, who is done for the year. In its last two games, Tennessee has been pummeled on the ground. Texas A&M put up 353 rushing yards last week, while Alabama ran for 409 — its highest total in the Nick Saban era. The Gamecocks might be able to move the ball better this week.
3. Can the Volunteers play four quarters?
They haven't done it even once this season. Tennessee has trailed by double digits in four of its five wins — Appalachian State, Virginia Tech, Florida and Georgia. The Vols have been outscored 76-17 in the first quarter this year but are outscoring teams 90-42 in the fourth. This continues to be a popular and bewildering stat about Butch Jones’ team. More than anything, the Big Orange needs consistency. Especially now that the brutal four-game stretch is out of the way and Tennessee is rested off a bye week, it needs to come out and show that it can put together a full game of football. South Carolina isn't a great team, but the Gamecocks are more than capable of hanging around. It would benefit Tennessee to get off to a fast start against a good defense for once.
South Carolina really doesn't stack up well against Tennessee on paper. As good as the Gamecocks' defense has been, Volunteers' quarterback Joshua Dobbs is a matchup nightmare. And despite all the injuries, Tennessee is still talented on defense — probably talented enough to shut down the South Carolina running game. The Gamecocks will need solid quarterback play and balance to score on the Vols. But even though Tennessee appears to be better in every statistical category, it has yet to show off its full potential in a game. I think the South Carolina defense will keep the Gamecocks in this one until the end. Tennessee will stay in control, but it will be a close game.