It’s a big game for both sides on Saturday night at Neyland Stadium, as both Tennessee and South Carolina look to save their seasons. The Volunteers took one on the chin a couple of weeks ago against Florida, and now must bounce back against a good South Carolina squad to keep any sort of championship hopes alive.
Tennessee won’t lack motivation. South Carolina essentially ended Tennessee’s season last November, throttling the Volunteers to take them out of the College Football Playoff. Tennessee would have simply needed to beat Vanderbilt to make the final four, but thanks to that loss, they missed out.
Spencer Rattler was the main reason for that South Carolina win. That night will more than likely go down as the best game of his college career — he simply couldn’t miss. The Tennessee defense was particularly bad on that night, as the secondary was beaten time and time again in the intermediate and deep parts of the field.
On Saturday, Tennessee gets a chance to right some wrongs. Rattler and company will make the trip to Neyland Stadium, which is sure to be rocking. Can Tennessee contain Rattler this year? That’s the key to a Volunteer victory.
“He’s a really good player,” Josh Heupel said of Rattler. “He’s played at a high level. He’s played a lot of football. He’s playing extremely well right now. He was dynamic in that football game, and he has that in his arsenal. And you know, for us, the line of scrimmage is important, and we’ve got to do a really good job. We’ve got to get him in third and long’s last year. We didn’t get off the field on third and long last year. Some of that was coverage, some of that was him extending and making some really special plays. We’ve got to do a great job of bottling them up and applying pressure at the same time.”
Tennessee served as the coming out party for Rattler and the South Carolina offense. A 63 point explosion got their momentum rolling, and they rolled into the following week and knocked off Clemson.
Rattler threw for 438 yards and six touchdowns last year against Tennessee, connecting on 30-37 of his passes. Everything looked shockingly easy on that night, and the Volunteers are going to have to be much more disruptive this time around.
“He’s played quite a bunch of football,” Heupel said. “He understands coverages, and he sees rotations. He takes himself to the right spot based on the coverage and the beaters that they have up on their schemes. He’s got the ability to extend and make plays with his feet. He’s accurate with the football; you’ve got to do a great job.”
Rattler has continued his hot streak to start the 2023 season. He threw for 300+ in his first two games of the season, then led the Gamecocks to a 37-30 win over Mississippi State last week while putting together a super-efficient game. Rattler went 18-20 for 288 yards and three touchdowns against the Bulldogs.
He’s also added 43 and 35 yards rushing over the last couple of games, which highlights just how dangerous he can be. Tennessee knows all about that, as Rattler killed the Volunteers on the move one year ago.
“You’ve got to apply pressure to him — you can’t let him out of the pocket at the same time,” Heupel continued. “When he does scramble, you’ve got to match the personnel out in space. He created a bunch of big plays against us last year outside of the pocket. He’s a really good football player that poses a problem. We’ve got to do a really good job up front and on the second and third levels in our coverage.”
Rattler admits that Tennessee was the launch point for his Gamecocks, at least on the offensive side of the ball.
“That was our coming-out game as an offense,” Ratter said of last year’s game. “We didn’t really have that explosive of a game throughout the whole year, I feel like, and from there on out, it’s been pretty consistent since that game. Obviously, it’s a lot different this year with what we’re doing, a lot better. We’ve just got to keep it rolling — it was a good confidence for us, but it’s in the past. This is a whole new team. Tennessee’s got a whole new team, and we’ve got to go to battle. This is going to be a war on Saturday.”
South Carolina will be without a top weapon on Saturday, with wide receiver Juice Wells already ruled out. However, Xavier Legette has been one of the best receivers in the country this year, already well over 500 yards for the season. He will have Tennessee’s full attention in this one.
Tennessee has an aggressive defense and a capable front, but they were unable to knock Rattler off his game last November. That has to change on Saturday night, and the Volunteers certainly have the players to do it. Tyler Baron looks like a different guy this year, while James Pearce has flashed pretty hard so far this season.
The Volunteers are favored by 12 points, per DraftKings Sportsbook. The oddsmakers are banking on Tennessee playing the payback angle, despite their struggles two weeks ago in The Swamp in what has really been their only test to this point.
We’ll see if they’re correct at 7:30 p.m. ET on Saturday night.
Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See DraftKings.com/sportsbook for details.