Tennessee returns to Neyland this weekend for its annual bout with South Carolina after thumping Missouri in Columbia last Saturday. While Vegas has the Vols currently sitting at around a 10-point favorite, recent history seems to indicate the game is likely to finish closer than that. The teams are a dead-even, five-to-five split over the last decade in this series, with eight of those 10 games being decided by fewer than 10 points.
I enlisted the help of the fine folks over at Garnet and Black Attack (@GABAttack) for some insight into South Carolina, beyond just its 3-2 record.
1. Both Tennessee and South Carolina are 3-2, but both of the Gamecocks’ losses came from SEC East teams, while the Vols just have one conference (also divisional) loss.
Not that either team came into the season with reasonable SEC Championship aspirations, but still — which team would you say this game is more important for?
GABA: It’s hard to say. Both teams obviously have a lot to prove right now with first-year head coaches, but Tennessee may be feeling more pressure to produce given the program’s history and general impatience to get back to something resembling relevance. At this moment, UT looks to be ahead of schedule compared to Carolina, but if the Gamecocks want to make a bowl, this is one of the more “winnable” games left on the schedule, certainly. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a must-win — I don’t think Gamecock fans will be shocked at all if we drop this one, nor do I think it would be an indictment on this team — but it would certainly be the first “statement” win of Shane Beamer’s career that could demonstrate progress and restore some hope.
2. South Carolina is coming off a 24-13 win, at home, against a not-so-great Troy team. But, just a week prior, USC lost a close game (16-10) to an undefeated Kentucky squad that just knocked off Florida.
How would you describe the overall demeanor of the fan base right now? Are they satisfied? Or, did they expect a better record at this juncture of the season?
GABA: The mood is pretty dire right now. Like, funeral dire. I don’t think folks necessarily expected a better record at this point, but I think they did expect a better performance, or at least a team that was more fun to watch. The Kentucky game is really sticking in the fanbase’s craw, given how winnable it was and how they just beat Florida, and the Troy game was so ugly that the less said about it, the better. I think most people are tabbing this as a 5-win team, tops — attaining bowl eligibility feels like it’d take a miracle.
3. Current SEC rankings for South Carolina’s rushing offense:
- 11th in rushing yards (605)
- 10th in rushing attempts (173)
- 11th in yards per carry (3.5)
- 14th in rushing TDs (1)
Why can’t South Carolina get the running game going?
GABA: To put it bluntly, if there’s a worse offensive line in the country, yikes, because ours is absolutely atrocious. Missed assignments, poor communication, rushers running free, constant procedural penalties — if there’s a way an offensive line can screw up, ours has done it, and many times over. On top of that, Kevin Harris — who was last year’s SEC rushing champ — had an offseason back surgery that is clearly affecting him more than most expected. He seemed to get stronger as the game wore on against Troy, so there’s some optimism that he’s rounding back into form, but he definitely hasn’t been himself. We’ve got a pretty talented running back stable overall, but former blue-chipper MarShawn Lloyd is coming off an injury of his own (ACL tear), and Juju McDowell and ZaQuandre White are younger guys still learning (and in Juju’s case, an apparent liability with blocking on passing downs). So yeah, there are a couple different things going on, but it all comes back to the line, which is just absolutely killing this offense across the board.
4. The Gamecocks’ pass defense seems to be a bright spot this season. They’re allowing around 160 yards per-game (third in the SEC) through the air and lead the conference in interceptions (9), pick 6s (3) and rank third in passes defended (20). Tennessee’s fairly middle-of-the-road throwing the ball, ranking 8th in the league averaging 220-ish passing yards per game. Is this somewhere USC feels like it has an advantage?
GABA: I think so, yeah. The secondary has definitely been a pleasant surprise, because that unit was decimated between departures to the NFL, graduation, and transfers. Jaylan Foster, in particular, is coming off a monster game with 11 tackles, an interception, and two forced fumbles, and I believe he leads the country in interceptions. This is absolutely a defensive team, and the line has been fairly stout as well (no doubt helping the secondary be this productive). It makes the lack of offense all the more frustrating, because when you hold a team to 16 points and force three turnovers — again, going back to the Kentucky game — there’s no reason you should lose.
5. This next question is from the fine folks of #VolTwitter.
Justin (@VOLgarFAN) asks:
“Ask about Marcus Satterfield, from Greenback TN, and just what they think about his offense so far. Is it a Jimmy’s and Joe’s or an X’s and O’s issue? Or are they happy with the way it’s looked?”
GABA: Ha, Marcus Satterfield is a very controversial topic. There are a lot of folks who already have their pitchforks and want to see him run out on a rail, while others are preaching patience. I’m personally in the latter category. The offensive execution has been so incredibly bad that I think it’s hard to pin our struggles on the scheme when players are just flat out not making plays they’re in position to make. The constant procedural penalties have this team playing behind the chains more often than not, which obviously changes/limits what you can do from a play calling standpoint, and in addition to the line just not blocking, we’ve had multiple egregious receiver drops that just keep happening. This offense has been ugly and no fun at all to watch, there’s no denying that, but again — I don’t think we’re seeing it work as intended. If guys finally start blocking and catching and it’s still a total nightmare, well, then we have a better idea of where to place the blame.
6. Last question: the most recent line I’ve seen has Tennessee favored by 10.5. But since 2011, this game’s been decided by fewer than 10 points eight times with a 5.8-point average margin of victory in that time span. So, who ya got?
GABA: The line definitely seems a little high in the context of what has historically been a close and very weird series, but I understand that folks are impressed with what the Vols did to Missouri last week. South Carolina has yet to show that it has a pulse on offense, and while I do think this game isn’t totally out of reach because of how good the defense has been, I’m not feeling good about it. (Doesn’t help that it’s in Knoxville, which has traditionally been a house of horrors for us.) I’m definitely going with Tennessee here, though I’m hopeful that it won’t be the kind of eye-popping rout the Tigers suffered.