But the South Carolina Gamecocks (3-2, 0-2) are a much different opponent, starting up front with the defensive line. Despite the differences, the Vols head into Saturday’s matchup as 10.5-point favorites to win the game.
- All-time series: Tennessee leads the all-time series, 27-10-2.
- Largest margin of victory: The Vols beat the Gamecocks like a drum, 54-0, in 1929.
- Longest win streak: UT won 12 in a row from 1993-2004
- 2021 offensive and defensive rankings: The Vols currently have the 19th-best offense (78th passing, 7th rushing) and the 51st-ranked defense (77th passing, 25th rushing). They average 40.8 points per game (10th) and have allowed an average of 21.8 points per game (49th). The Gamecocks have the 116th-ranked offense (89th passing, 103rd rushing) and the 29th-ranked defense (12th passing, 73rd rushing). They average 22.4 points per game (103rd) on offense and have allowed an average of 17.4 points per game (23rd).
What To Watch For
- How the Vols respond after a big win: The Vols are coming off a huge, dominant road win over the Tigers. It’s easily Heupel’s biggest win during his time in Knoxville, thus far and it’s the biggest win of the season for the team. How will the team respond not only after a big win, but in a game where they have yet another 12PM EST kickoff? Those early kicks can always present problems and when you combine with the emotion of last week’s big win, it will be interesting to see how this team not only plays at the start of the game, but how they play throughout all four quarters.
- Can the Gamecocks have offensive success despite no running game: Oftentimes, matchups on paper don’t play out like they should in a game, but then again, sometimes they do. That should be the case with the Gamecocks rushing attack vs. the Vols run defense this week. South Carolina can’t run the ball and Tennessee can stop the run. And a lot of UT’s success has to do with coaching, which will make the run defense a factor week-in and week-out. Can USCe put points on the board without a running game?
- Turnovers: This sounds very basic, but it’s applicable every week. Especially this week. The Vols’ strength is the offense. The Gamecocks’ strength is their defense. When you’re matched up with a strength-on-strength situation, turnovers -or the lack thereof- define who wins more often than not. USC is very good at forcing turnovers. They are tied for the fourth-most in the country with 14. The Vols are 38th with eight. In terms of giveaways, the Vols have just six on the year compared to USC’s nine. The Vols’ 10.5-point spread will diminish quickly if they can’t hold on to the ball, but they could easily cover if they do.
- Tennessee’s run game: On paper, the Gamecocks have a stout run defense. But if you look a bit closer you’ll notice a trend: They’ve given up a ton of rushing yards in their two SEC contests against Georgia (184) and Kentucky (230). Granted, those two teams have always been known to chew up yards on the ground, but hey, Tennessee is known for doing that very well in 2021. The duo of Tiyon Evans and Jabari Small have been an excellent 1-2 punch so far and should have some success against USCe, but how much success remains to be seen.
- Dark mode: Yes, I had to mention Tennessee’s uniforms, here. It’s ok to divert from the game and talk about fun topics from time to time, and this is definitely one of those topics. The Vols are displaying some sweet new unis on Saturday, but as we all know: You better win when you wear special unis/do things like checkerboard Neyland, or else the fun times end quickly and fans are left with PTSD when it comes to attempting this type of stuff later in the future.
- QB Hendon Hooker: Hooker has been very good since taking over for Milton against Pitt and his play has really stabilized/taken the Vols offense to the levels it’s wanting to reach and he’s doing it without making hardly any mistakes, at all.
- Offensive line: The front five has been inconsistent, but has found a way to get the job done pretty much each week. They’ll get their toughest test this week, however, so it will be interesting to see how they perform against a stout front seven.
- WR JaVonta Payton: Man, has Payton been exciting to watch, or what? Whenever the Vols need a big play, they look his way. And that won’t change on Saturday.
- DL Aubrey Solomon: Elijah Simmons went down in the second quarter against Mizzou and didn’t return. His status for this week is still unknown. If he can’t go, then Solomon will step in and be responsible for helping the Vols maintain gap control up front. Solomon and the rest of the front seven can’t allow South Carolina to get going on the ground.
- LB Jeremy Banks: Banks has really stepped it up this year. He’s made plays all season long and his stat line of 25 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, and one interception reflects that statement.
- CB Alontae Taylor: If he can shut down Josh Vann, then the Gamecocks won’t have many other effective options at receiver. Plus, Vann is a playmaker, so Taylor will need to ensure Vann doesn’t get behind the secondary.
South Carolina Gamecocks
- QB Luke Doty: He had his best game of the season against Troy last week, but it was still just a 255-yard, one passing touchdown effort. In all, he’s completed just 58.8% of his passes for 566 yards, three touchdowns, and one interception. South Carolina is going to need him to step up on Saturday.
- RB Kevin Harris: Harris led the SEC in rushing last year, but hasn’t had much success through the first five games of 2021. This would be a great week for him to get back on track, even if it will be hard to do against the Vols’ stout run defense.
- WR Josh Vann: Talk about a big-play threat. Vann leads the SEC and is ninth in the nation with an average of 21.4-yards per reception on 16 receptions. Tennessee can’t let him break loose.
- DL Kinglsey Enagbare: This kid will likely be playing on Sundays and currently leads the team with 2.5 sacks on the year, however, two of those sacks came against East Carolina, so there is still work to be done. The Vols can’t let him get in a groove this week.
- LB Brad Johnson: Johnson is easily the best linebacker on the team. He has 31 tackles on the season, but also has 3.5 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks, and a fumble recovery on the year.
- CB Jaylan Foster: The sixth-year corner (you read that right) is an all-around playmaker. He leads the team in tackles (39) and has the most interceptions in the nation (4) through five games. Oh, he also has a sack included in the stat line, as well.
Honestly, 10.5-points seems like easy money if you bet the Gamecocks to cover. Even if South Carolina struggles on offense, the Gamecocks defense will be a tough challenge due to the inconsistency of Tennessee’s offensive line. As we all know, the best way to beat a good offense is by getting pressure and disrupting the opposing quarterback’s timing. The Gamecocks are going to do everything they can to disrupt Hooker and the Vols offense and they will have success when doing so.
At the same time, Tennessee’s offense is clicking and the coaching staff is doing an excellent job of playing to their player’s strengths and putting them in spots to succeed. Tennessee won’t put up 62 points this week, but they will certainly have enough success to put pressure on South Carolina’s offense.
It’s strength vs. strength when it comes to UT’s offense and USCe’s defense. This type of matchup can always breed an upset in the SEC, but the Vols are just good enough in the areas that matter (red zone offense, third down conversion rate, committing turnovers) to where they should win this game. It may not be easy or a double-digit win, but a 4-2 record with a 2-1 record in SEC play will certainly give Vols fans plenty of reason to smile this weekend.