A team with the depth and experience problems of three coaches in four years, plus four of its five best players injured or off the team, faces its third Top 15 opponent and Top 10 defense in a row. They'll do so with a true freshman quarterback who has thrown exactly zero passes in college.
Same problem, same result, right?
Or does this one feel a little different?
Maybe it's the fact that it's simply not LSU or Alabama. Maybe it's the fact that we're still not used to treating South Carolina as an equal (or close to it). Maybe it's the spark created by Justin Worley's presence. Maybe it's the absence of Stephen Garcia and Marcus Lattimore.
Maybe it's all of those things and then some. Maybe it's been so long since we won a big game, we know how good it would feel to break through and can sense it coming.
Sooner or later, we have to win one of these. Derek Dooley knows it. Knows it doesn't have to be this year with all the injuries, but at some point you have to stop being close, and at some point you have to man up and play football in the second half. Sooner or later.
But man, sooner would be such a relief. A release.
Here's how Tennessee can do it Saturday night against #14 South Carolina.
Is South Carolina's defense overrated?
It's been a significant storyline all week for Tennessee: after facing Alabama (first) and LSU (third), two of the nation's best in total defense, here comes South Carolina (seventh).
Butbutbut...look how they got there:
- East Carolina: 345 yards (260 pass - 85 rush)
- Georgia: 436 yards (248 pass - 188 rush)
- Navy: 335 yards (61 pass - 274 rush)
- Vanderbilt: 77 yards (73 pass - 4 rush)
- Auburn: 358 yards (112 pass - 246 rush)
- Kentucky: 96 yards (17 pass - 79 rush)
- Mississippi State: 296 yards (165 pass - 131 rush)
Are you a good defense...or have you played Vanderbilt and Kentucky?
The Brayless Vols aren't a dynamic offense, unless Justin Worley is as good as we all want him to be right away. Yards still won't be free...but it won't be the last two weeks either.
I'm done trying to guess what Jim Chaney is going to do, how much we'll run with Tauren Poole
(who needs to make sure he's in the same bad mood he brought to Tuscaloosa last week) or how many chances we'll take with Worley downfield. I just know it should be easier than it has been against an inflated defense.
But here's a fun stat for you: South Carolina leads the SEC in takeaways and is second in giveaways.
The Vols are tenth in turnover margin in the conference at -4. Carolina is tied for second at +6 (behind the incredibly insane +15 for LSU). But the Gamecocks have also been lucky, recovering 10 fumbles. You say it's not luck? Look, Memphis has recovered 10 fumbles.
Is it more likely that this game comes down to not who's better, Connor Shaw
or Justin Worley...but who hurts his team least?
Shaw isn't as interception friendly as Garcia, which is unfortunate. And the concern with him has been holding the ball too long...which would be more of a problem if the Vols could generate any real pass rush. And of course, Worley is a true freshman in his very first start - he's automatically more likely to make mistakes.
Still, if our primary concern last week was the last maxim, this game could be about the first one: the team that makes the fewest mistakes will win. Many expect an ugly football game. But a victory of any kind would be the prettiest thing we've seen in Knoxville in a long, long time.
Is this the week it happens? Don't know. How will Worley look? No idea. I think Carolina's defense is statistically overrated, and the Vols will play better simply because it's not LSU or Alabama on the other sideline.
Will it be enough? Maybe. We'll need the sixty minute performance that has escaped Dooley's grasp. We'll need Worley to not get us beat. We'll need luck to balance out a little more. And we'll need our defense to carry the fight - shut down whatever their run game looks like without Lattimore, and don't let Shaw beat you on his own.
Tennessee fans are dying for a big win. Is this the one?