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Tennessee vs. South Carolina: Five things to watch

NCAA Football: Missouri at Tennessee Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee will head to Columbia, South Carolina on Saturday night, looking for their 10th win of the 2022 season. It’s obviously another big moment for the Volunteers, with everything on the line and no room for error.

Here are five things on my mind entering the weekend.

Style points

Josh Heupel certainly wasn’t shy about shoving the gas pedal through the floorboard last weekend. Tennessee took Missouri out back in the second half, spanking the Tigers and throwing bombs with just a couple of minutes left to play. Was that just for style points? Or did it have something to do with the comments made by Eli Drinkwitz over the summer?

I’m going to go with the style point argument, and Heupel is going to do it again to Shane Beamer and company on Saturday night if he gets the chance. The total for the game is 66. Tennessee’s team total prop, per DraftKings Sportsbook, is 44.5. Give me the over.

South Carolina struggles to stop the run, and if they load the box to try and stop Jabari and Jaylen, they’ll put Tennessee receivers in one-on-one situations. Don’t forget about Jalin Hyatt’s homecoming, either. The South Carolina native will be highly motivated for this one, which will be played in his own backyard.

Will Cedric Tillman play?

When asked about Tillman and defensive tackle Omari Thomas on Thursday, Heupel gave us his standard answer.

“I mean, those guys have been with us all week. We’ll find out on game day, or, really, tomorrow have a better idea. But some of it is game day, obviously.”

Tillman returned for two games after missing the bulk of the season due to a high ankle sprain. He was a surprise scratch for last weekend’s game against Missouri, and his status entering this one is a mystery. Will Tennessee put him on a pitch count for these next two weeks — perhaps looking ahead to the College Football Playoff? Frankly, Tillman hasn’t been able to show us that explosiveness since returning. He can take this offense to a different level when he is healthy, and if the Volunteers do make the CFP, he’ll have about a month to get back to 100 percent.

More Dylan Sampson?

We heard about him all through camp, we’ve seen him in mop-up duty. Last week, he played a little more meaningful football — and looked good doing it. Tennessee’s leading rusher last week was, in fact, freshman running back Dylan Sampson.

Sampson handled eight carries for 98 yards. Did that open the door for more work going forward?

“The game and just the way it played out, had an opportunity to use him,” Heupel said of Sampson last week. “Had planned on doing that a couple weeks earlier, too, probably more frequently than he has at the beginning of the season. From the very beginning of the season, he’s more comfortable in what we’re doing, trust him in the protection side of it and feel like he can handle our entire package.

“During the course of the game, played extremely well. Was solid in the pass protection side of it, but with the ball in his hands, I thought he had great vision, great pace, and then obviously had the ability to burst when he’s at the line of scrimmage and go create some things on his own, too, and make people miss when he got to the second and third levels.”

Honestly, the Tennessee offense has been missing an explosive athlete in the backfield. Late in the year, it’s possible that they’ve found one. Heupel and Golesh have a chance to get him even more comfortable in these final two weeks.

Road improvements

The roadtrip to Athens didn’t go well, anyone will tell you that. Tennessee was rattled by the environment and noise, racking up several pre-snap penalties early on in the game. Saturday night will be their last true road environment (sorry, Vanderbilt) of the season. So what must Tennessee do better in Williams-Brice?

“Do the ordinary things at a really high level,” Heupel said. “Communicate, get the snap, get off on time on the offensive side of the football. Be able to reset, handle momentum swings during the course of the football game. Embrace the energy that’s not your energy, right, from their fan base and compete really hard. We’ve done that at times at a really high level. A couple of weeks ago we didn’t do that.”

The orange helmets

We had seen them floating around social media for a few weeks, now we’ll see them on the field. Tennessee is set to wear their alternate orange helmets on Saturday night, which will be the fourth helmet variation of the season (orange, white, grey, black).

“I get excited for the kids when they’re excited about it,” Heupel said of the alternate look. “Our classic uniforms are as good as there is, and love them. But I think our players and recruits, but our players, love being able to put a twist on things. This week, the orange helmets — they wore them a week ago, just trying to break them in. When they saw that, there was some excitement from them. I think it’s awesome.”

Heupel also pointed towards the history of the orange helmets, which were last worn in 1948.

“These were worn a long time ago, but it’s still a part of our tradition, being able to celebrate that. And when players get a chance to be a part of picking things out. Our leadership council was a part of picking these out last spring, so there’s a lot of excitement from them.”

Kickoff is set for 7 p.m. ET on ESPN on Saturday night.