Tennessee Volunteers vs. South Carolina Gamecocks Complete Game Preview
A year ago, Tennessee completed an improbable 23-21 come-from-behind win over South Carolina to give Butch Jones' first UT team its signature win.
The Volunteers are in desperate need of a repeat.
This time, it'll have to come in Columbia. But after running through a gauntlet of stingy defenses and after finding a quarterback in Joshua Dobbs that appears to be have resurrected a left-for-dead offense, the porous Gamecocks defense will be a welcome sight for UT.
However, that Carolina offense, led by senior quarterback Dylan Thompson, just put up 35 points in a loss on the road to Auburn, so the Vols have another challenge.
Tennessee currently sits at 3-5 on the season and winless in the league. The scenario sets up the Vols needing to win three of their final four games to become bowl-eligible.
In other words, the real season starts this week for UT.
Let's take a look at everything you need to know about the matchup with the Gamecocks.
Date: Saturday, Nov. 1
Time: 7:30 ET
Place: Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia, South Carolina
TV: SEC Network
Radio: Vol Network, Gamecock IMG Sports Network
Spread: South Carolina by 8 points, according to Oddsshark.com.
Tennessee Keys to Victory
Last season, Joshua Dobbs' redshirt came off, and he performed admirably against Alabama. Then, he regressed as the season moved on.
That can't happen again.
In fairness to the 6'3", 216-pound sophomore, there are no teams left on the schedule as good as last year's rendition of Auburn and Missouri. The Vols do, however, have the Gamecocks, Mizzou, Kentucky and Vanderbilt remaining, and they could win (or lose) every game.
If Dobbs plays like he did Saturday night, or perhaps even better, UT is going to be tough to handle. He is much faster than he was a season ago, and after breaking multiple tackles, it appears he's stronger, too. Throw in improved arm strength, and there are encouraging signs for his prospects.
"I thought their quarterback that came in, No. 11, really did a good job in the game," UA coach Nick Saban said, according to UTSports.com. "His athleticism gave us some problems; had trouble containing him a few times. They did a nice job with some of the quarterback runs they had built into their offense, which was a problem for us."
He just needs to build off his performance against the Tide.
As well as coordinator John Jancek's defense has played this year, it was just as bad in the first quarter of the Alabama game.
The Vols had no answer for receiver Amari Cooper, quarterback Blake Sims or running back T.J. Yeldon early on.
Then, all of a sudden, UT's fast, opportunistic defense returned as quickly as it had disappeared. The Crimson Tide scored just two touchdowns the rest of the game.
South Carolina struggles on defense, but it has plenty of weapons on offense and especially in the passing game. The Vols cannot wait 15 minutes to wake up. If they do, they'll dig themselves too big of a hole again.
Unleash the Beast
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary moving forward of Dobbs playing under center is true freshman running back Jalen Hurd.
It's obvious to anybody who sees him play that Hurd has the balance to go along with a size-speed combo that will eventually turn him into a star. He just hasn't had much room to work with UT's offensive line struggles.
With Dobbs moving the pocket, Hurd again found some room inside and out against Bama. He wound up with 16 carries for 59 yards and a touchdown to go along with six catches for 27 yards. UT designed ways to get him the ball, and Dobbs followed through.
"I'm just trying to fight for every yard, really," Hurd told reporters, according to UTSports.com. "I need to take it upon myself to make more big plays. I was put in the situation to make big plays tonight, which there were some that I didn't, and I definitely need to make bigger plays."
Hurd is a massive weapon for this team. If he keeps getting the ball 20-25 times a game, the Vols will win.
South Carolina Keys to Victory
Finally Find Answers
With Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and a slew of defensive backs gone from a season ago, the Gamecocks have been predictably awful on that side of the ball.
They're next-to-last in total defense, allowing 437.5 yards per game. They're tied for last with Vanderbilt in scoring defense, giving up 32.8 points per game. They're also last in rush defense with a 208.8 yards-against clip. The number improves a little in pass defense, where the Gamecocks are 11th.
It's been poor across the board.
UT isn't dynamic offensively, so now would be a good time for them to break out of their season-long slump.
After his five-touchdown performance against Auburn, senior quarterback Dylan Thompson continues to surge up the conference leaderboard.
Though he has an unorthodox throwing motion and isn't a top pro prospect, Thompson has made Spurrier's offense tick, throwing for 2,241 yards, 23 touchdowns and eight interceptions while completing 60.8 percent of his passes.
The Vols were sixth nationally in pass defense before Amari Cooper shredded them and sent them free-falling to 13th, but that's still stout. So, this will be a big test for Thompson to see if he can continue his hot streak.
Tennessee Players to Watch
Every week since suffering a high ankle sprain in the season's second game, Pearson has gotten better.
Against Alabama, he caught three passes for 21 yards, including a sprint-out touchdown to the pylon, where Joshua Dobbs hit him perfectly.
An offense with a moving pocket that is speed-based is perfect for Pearson's game. Dobbs needs to look to get him the ball in space and let his speed and nifty footwork do the rest.
Early on, it looked like the junior college transfer was going to be a huge part of the offense, but he hasn't been himself. Now that he's got his wheels back, Dobbs needs to let him make a difference.
A year after being one of the worst defenses in the nation, UT currently has four players in the SEC's top 12 in tackles for loss. No matter who they play, the Vols are disruptive.
The leader of the group (already) is true freshman Derek Barnett, who is second in the league with 11 stops behind the line of scrimmage. He had 1.5 more against Alabama and should have had another one, but quarterback Blake Sims slipped from his grasp on what looked to be a sack.
UT is banged up along the defensive front, and it needs to find a way to keep getting pressure on the quarterback. Pressing Dylan Thompson causes him to make mistakes, and that needs to be the Vols' game plan.
That means UT needs a big game from Barnett.
Having two receivers on this list is a stretch, but the bottom line is North hasn't lived up to his elite potential yet.
Having Dobbs under center can help that.
The duo of sophomores are roommates and best friends. They spend a lot of time together, and they're on the same page offensively. They certainly looked like it against Alabama. If North starts playing the way he can, catching passes and dominating cornerbacks with his size, UT's offense is going to get better and better.
South Carolina Players to Watch
He hasn't had the kind of All-SEC season of which he's capable, but the powerful junior running back still has the ability to take over games.
Davis (when healthy) has been a workhorse for the Gamecocks, averaging more than five yards per carry and amassing 750 rushing yards this season. He also has scored eight touchdowns.
Watching him run roughshod over opponents is particularly difficult for the Vols, as they were the other finalist for his services during his recruitment, much like Alabama's Derrick Henry.
The Vols rush defense has improved as the year has worn on, and though 'Bama did have 183 yards on the ground, UT kept Henry (4.9 yards per carry) and T.J. Yeldon (3.7 yards per carry) in check. Davis will try to have a similar game as Todd Gurley did earlier this year.
There aren't many difference-makers on coordinator Lorenzo Ward's porous defense, but the sophomore linebacker is definitely one.
He is 18th in the league with 51 total tackles, and Moore has all the trappings to be a really good SEC player.
That's what makes the news surfacing that he "may be doubtful" for the game against UT, according to Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier in a report by The Big Spur's John Whittle, huge news. If Moore can't go, that makes a very suspect defense much worse.
For the third consecutive week, the Vols get to face one of the SEC's best wide receivers.
The Vols hope playing this Cooper is easier than the last one.
Everything after Alabama's Amari Cooper is going to feel like a stroll in the park.
Two weeks ago, sophomore cornerback Cameron Sutton did a nice job limiting Ole Miss' Laquon Treadwell. Then, Amari Cooper blew up against the Vols, solidifying himself as a dark-horse Heisman candidate. Now comes Pharoh Cooper, the dynamic sophomore who has emerged as Dylan Thompson's top target.
Cooper is third in the league with 553 receiving yards, averaging 13.3 yards per catch and scoring six touchdowns. Against Auburn, he caught seven passes, ran the ball twice and even completed a pass to Thompson, according to GoGamecocks.com's Dwayne McLemore.
Spurrier knows he's got a star on his hands, so he gets him the football.
He'll get a steady dose of Sutton, and UT must neutralize him.
What They're Saying
Playing against a resurgent Alabama defensive front that had just registered six sacks against Texas A&M did not look like a good matchup for UT's struggling offensive line.
The Vols had allowed 30 sacks throughout the season's first seven games and were down two starters.
Still, UT was up to the challenge against the Tide. The Vols allowed just two sacks to 'Bama, and only one of those came with Joshua Dobbs in the game.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones said, according to UTSports, that's a much-needed positive moving forward:
I tell you what, being down two offensive linemen—and I'll have to watch the video more—I thought we came off the ball. We were able to establish a run game. I thought Jalen Hurd ran exceptionally hard. Again, a spark with Josh running the ball as well. Having the depth that we all know about and being down two offensive linemen, I thought we did some good things. Some great building blocks in moving forward for the rest of the season.
South Carolina has some serious, deep-rooted defensive issues, but that doesn't mean head coach Steve Spurrier is itching to make changes.
The Gamecocks allowed 550 yards in the loss to Auburn, the fourth game this year they've allowed more than 445 in a game. When asked if he still had confidence in his defensive staff, Spurrier told Gamecock Central's Scott Hood (subscription required):
Certainly, certainly. They were here for our first 11-win season and Lorenzo (Ward) has been the coordinator for the last two seasons.
We're coaching very similarly to what we used to do. We do have a lot of young, different players out there. It is a different defense from last year. We thought we would be a little bit better than what we have been so far, but it hasn't worked out that way.
Spurrier went on to note, "We're not talking any changes or anything like that."
How much confidence does Jones have in Hurd? Well, as much as he has in himself, which is a lot. The Vols freshman running back is going to be special, even if his statistics don't necessarily show his production this season.
Jones told Volquest.com's Paul Fortenberry (subscription required):
Jalen is Jalen. We're on the bus to the Anderson Training Center today for walk through and I sit next to him on the bus and I say, 'We've got to go, man. Let's go.' And he looks at me and says, 'Just give me the ball, coach.' And he goes back to sleep on the ride over. That's the poise and the confidence that he has.
This is the first of four remaining swing games for Tennessee—games that can go either way.
With myriad questions on offense, it was asking a lot for the Vols to beat defensive-minded Ole Miss on the road or Alabama at home. But, now, UT gets to play a South Carolina team whose strength will be matched up against the Vols' strengths.
That's encouraging. But it's also on the road.
UT's win over the Gamecocks in Neyland Stadium last year will no doubt add an element of payback to South Carolina gearing up for this game at Williams-Brice Stadium. That win proved the Vols can hang with South Carolina at any time.
The past two seasons, each team has won a game. Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney sacked Tyler Bray and forced a fumble with UT driving to secure a 38-35 win in 2012. Then, the Vols returned the favor 23-21 last year.
This year's game will be another really close one that could go either way.
If the Vols win, it sets up a favorable scenario to get them into a bowl game. If they lose, they'll have to win their final three games against Missouri, Kentucky and Vanderbilt.
Tennessee's young, talented team is going to win an important game soon. Given all South Carolina's defensive holes, I like Tennessee's chances. The Vols are getting healthy, too. So, an upset could be brewing.
If not, the season's last three games will be a do-or-die scenario.
Prediction: Tennessee 27, South Carolina 24