Following a 58-21 beatdown at the hands of Alabama, Tennessee will head back out on the road on Saturday night to square off with South Carolina.
The Gamecocks and Will Muschamp have had Tennessee’s number, with South Carolina defeating the Vols the past two years and Muschamp winning his last six games against the Volunteers, dating back to his tenure at Florida.
Tennessee has made noticeable improvements this season — the game against super-team and future national championship winner Alabama notwithstanding — and this week’s contest is perhaps the most critical remaining on the Vols’ schedule in regards to a quest for bowl eligibility.
South Carolina was picked to finish second in the SEC East by the conference media prior to the season, but much like Tennessee’s opponent in its last SEC road game, the Gamecocks have not quite lived up to preseason expectations.
South Carolina currently sits at 3-3, with blowout wins over Coastal Carolina and Vanderbilt and a last-second, two-point victory over Missouri. The Gamecocks’ three losses all came to ranked teams — No. 3 Georgia, No. 17 Kentucky and No. 22 Texas A&M.
Inconsistency and slow starts have plagued South Carolina for much of the season, with the Gamecocks scoring a total of 13 first half points in their three losses.
It’s tough to gauge exactly how this weekend’s game will play out, because much of it is dependent upon which South Carolina team shows up. Unfortunately for Tennessee, the game being played in Williams-Brice Stadium at night increases the chances it’s the good version of the Gamecocks.
South Carolina had its bye last week, but in its last game two weeks ago, the Gamecocks lost 26-23 to No. 22 Texas A&M.
After falling behind 16-0, South Carolina scored two touchdowns and two successful two-point conversions to tie the score at 16 heading into the fourth quarter. But true to its 2018 theme of inconsistency, Carolina allowed Texas A&M to score the next 10 points, giving the Aggies enough of a cushion to sustain the Gamecocks’ last-minute touchdown.
South Carolina quarterback Jake Bentley completed 17 of 35 pass attempts for 223 hards, three touchdowns and an interception. The Carolina defense allowed Texas A&M to put up 458 yards of total offense.
WR Deebo Samuel — Samuel is South Carolina’s most explosive and versatile player, boasting 21 career touchdowns — nine receiving, seven rushing, two passing and three on kickoff returns. Containing Samuel on the perimeter and in the return game will be critical to Tennessee’s success.
LB Bryson Allen-Williams — Allen-Williams is having his best season at South Carolina in 2018, with 30 total tackles and 9.5 tackles for loss. The anchor of the South Carolina defense will look to get in the backfield and disrupt Tyson Helton’s running game and cause chaos in the pocket.
Tennessee is an eight-point underdog to the Gamecocks on Saturday, but the Vols beat Auburn as a 14-point underdog two weeks ago.
This game is definitely winnable for Tennessee. And a win for the Vols could have them 5-4 after a homecoming matchup with Charlotte, which would be an unmitigated success for Jeremy Pruitt and Co. through nine games.
There is some concern with Jarrett Guarantano’s health after leaving the game against Alabama following a big hit, but Keller Chryst performed admirable in Guarantano’s absence. It would probably be better for continuity’s and familiarity’s sakes to have Guarantano back, but if he’s not 100%, Chryst has proven himself more than a worthy back-up.
The biggest key for Tennessee will be getting out to a fast start. We have seen Pruitt’s squad fight admirably once it has fallen behind, but building a lead against a South Carolina team which has been susceptible to lackluster first halves would give the Vols a great chance to win.