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Tennessee vs South Carolina Preview: Ready for Liftoff

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The quarterback will lead the way, but Tennessee's ground game and defense can help carry this team to its first big win at South Carolina.

Kevin C. Cox

A long and sometimes bumpy road for Butch Jones and Tennessee these last two years now presents new opportunities.  The quarterback is new, and with him the promise of a rejuvenated offense.  And the schedule eases up, sending teams much closer to Tennessee's level to the opposite sideline the rest of the way home.  Bill Connelly's updated SEC projections now give the Vols a 63.4% chance at South Carolina, 85.8% against Kentucky, and 65.5% against Missouri (as well as 95.9% at Vanderbilt).  Three wins from here and we're bowling for the first time since 2010, sending the Vol seniors to their first postseason appearance.

All week I've been trying not to get too excited about what Josh Dobbs did against Alabama, and then I keep remembering he did it against, you know, Alabama.  There's an obvious point to be made about being better on first and second down so you don't need to convert 11 third downs, but nonetheless the dynamic has certainly changed for the better for Tennessee.

The Vols are still 122nd nationally in yards per play this season (4.45):

  • Utah State:  4.85
  • Arkansas State:  5.00
  • at Oklahoma:  4.06
  • at Georgia:  5.14
  • Florida:  3.43
  • Chattanooga:  4.79
  • at Ole Miss:  3.08
  • Alabama:  4.85
...but you have to be encouraged by Tennessee moving the ball as well against the Tide as it did in the opener.  The good news here:  Missouri's defense has been strong (3rd), but Kentucky (8th), Vanderbilt (12th), and South Carolina (dead last) are all at the bottom of the SEC's defensive rankings in yards per play.

South Carolina has been fairly consistent in what they give up defensively per play:

  • Texas A&M:  6.87
  • East Carolina:  6.76
  • Georgia:  6.80
  • at Vanderbilt:  6.89
  • Missouri:  4.00
  • at Kentucky:  6.77
  • Furman:  5.21
  • at Auburn:  8.89
...and they are especially bad at stopping the run, allowing a major conference worst 5.83 yards per carry this year; the closest SEC defense is Kentucky at 4.56 yards per carry allowed.

If you're looking for hope that Josh Dobbs didn't just change the Vol passing game but created opportunities for Jalen Hurd and Marlin Lane, Saturday night should be a tremendous opportunity.  If the Vols can run the ball on South Carolina the way everyone else has this year, it will take some pressure off the young sophomore signal caller and bring some long-awaited balance to the Vol offense.

On our podcast this week John Havard talked about South Carolina in terms that made us think of the 2012 Vols:  defense can't stop anybody, offense can score on anybody.  However, one of the things we discussed was who their anybody has been so far this year.  I think you can make a reasonable argument the Vols will be one of the best defenses Carolina has faced all year; Missouri is up there (and held Carolina to 20), and Georgia's numbers look good now but they were ripped apart in September by both of us.  We saw seven games of great defense from the Vols and 17 minutes of misery.  I'm more than willing to still believe Tennessee's defense is strong until I see them get knocked around more than once.

So see, there's 500+ words of encouragement about this game before we even really get to Josh Dobbs.

Last year heading into the Missouri game, Dobbs' first start, there were plenty of assumptions going around.  "He's like Mike Vick with an aerospace engineering degree!"  Stuff like that.  He did account for 285 yards of offense at Missouri, but the Vols had issues finishing drives.  Tennessee's first four in that game ended in Missouri territory with no points, and the fifth was a Dobbs interception, and by then Tennessee was down three scores.

Tennessee then got blown away by Auburn, then we saw Dobbs' horrendous game in the loss to Vanderbilt.  He bounced back against Kentucky in a game that didn't really matter, and then he fell down the depth chart when he couldn't unseat Justin Worley in practice.  But in Saturday's game, we saw an even stronger version of Dobbs doing even better things against an even better defense.

So look, we don't have to go back to the Mike Vick comparisons.  There are lots of things Tennessee can do on Saturday outside of Dobbs to give themselves a chance to win against what could be a fragile South Carolina team.  You still don't want to put too much on his shoulders, even though he certainly feels like the story.

One way Dobbs and the Vols can ease the whole thing:  take care of the football.  Tennessee stayed at an even turnover margin after last week, 16 giveaways and 16 takeaways.  The good news:  South Carolina has only nine takeaways all year.  We've been asking for a couple weeks now what the Vol offense might look like if it just took care of the ball instead of averaging two turnovers a game.

Dobbs' first start of the year has the chance to be a fresh start for Tennessee.  If the running backs and the defense play to their potential as well, Tennessee should have every opportunity to get its second straight win over South Carolina.  Win or lose, we don't have to put the weight of the whole world on our young quarterback.  But I, like you, can't wait to see him out there again.  Right now we're excited about the possibilities.  But on Saturday we should have a good chance to be excited about victory again.

Go Vols.