Tennessee Volunteers vs. South Carolina Gamecocks: Complete Game Preview

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistNovember 2, 2015

Tennessee Volunteers vs. South Carolina Gamecocks: Complete Game Preview

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    Even during the lean times of coach Butch Jones' Tennessee tenure, the Volunteers found a way to beat South Carolina.

    This weekend, they'll try to do so as the favorite.

    Riding a two-game winning streak over the Gamecocks, the Vols are also playing the best football of the Jones era after dominating Kentucky, hanging with Alabama a couple of weeks ago and upsetting Georgia before the bye week. 

    UT is clicking on all cylinders offensively, and the Vols boast the nation's best special teams. Though they've still got some holes on defense, defensive coordinator John Jancek's unit is making strides because it is getting after opposing quarterbacks and forcing mistakes.

    The Gamecocks are trying salvage something this season under interim coach Shawn Elliott, who took over after Steve Spurrier abruptly resigned. They're 3-5 on the year and just 1-5 in the SEC, but they showed signs of life with Perry Orth at the helm against Texas A&M in a 35-28 loss.

    Last year, the Vols really got things going in the right direction with a comeback, overtime victory over Carolina in Columbia, and this season, they'll try to keep the positive vibes going.

    Let's take a look at everything you need to know for this weekend's game.

    Date: Saturday, Nov. 7

    Time: 4 p.m. ET

    Place: Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, Tennessee

    TV: SEC Network

    Radio: Vol Network, Gamecock IMG Sports Network, Sirius XM 190

    Spread: Vols by 15, according to Oddsshark.

Tennessee Keys to Victory

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    Run wild

    This is an excellent matchup for the Vols simply because what they insist on doing offensively is something South Carolina hasn't proved it can stop: run the football.

    Tennessee is second in the SEC and 22nd nationally in rushing yards per game, averaging just over 214. The Gamecocks haven't stopped anybody running the ball, giving up more than 215 per contest. That's last in the league.

    Against Texas A&M, the Gamecocks allowed a 100-yard rusher in Tra Carson, and dual-threat quarterback Kyler Murray led the team with 156 more. Just like going into the Kentucky game, UT's X-factor is quarterback Joshua Dobbs.

    The Gamecocks must prove they can stop Dobbs. Then, they've got to find a way to stop Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, too. That's a tall task for a team that's been shredded on the ground all year.

    Mean Vereen

    Throughout the first half of the season, Tennessee's pass rush struggled mightily, and preseason All-SEC defensive end Derek Barnett wasn't a huge factor.

    Oh, what a difference a bookend makes.

    The past two games have witnessed the emergence of junior defensive end Corey Vereen as a disruptive force rushing the passer. Against Alabama and Kentucky, Vereen has nine tackles, including 4.5 for a loss, two sacks and two quarterback hurries.

    Barnett is thriving because of him, too. UT coach Butch Jones told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan:

    Our kids are playing with great get-off. They’re using their hands. We’ve been able to generate a pass rush—not only on the edges now, but on the inside, too—and that creates many opportunity sacks. And they just had a relentless approach, and they’re playing with a lot of confidence. Now we have to go back to work on Monday and look to improve. But they’re using their hands and they’re getting off on the football right now.

    The bye-week break helped Barnett, but so does the fact that other teams can't put extra attention on him. That's because Vereen rose to the occasion.

    Laundry men

    Last year, they caught a ton of the flak, so it's only appropriate that the Tennessee offensive linemen get a hearty pat on the back for what they've been able to accomplish this year.

    Early in the season, UT struggled allowing sacks, giving up nine in the first four games. Though they've allowed eight in the past four, five of those came against Alabama, which has arguably the best defensive front seven in the country.

    The other three games, Dobbs was sacked just one time each. He has more time in the pocket, and the passing game improved because of it. That's not to mention the excellent job the group is doing in the run game, despite dealing with major injuries.

    South Carolina hasn't generated much of a pass rush this year despite having some capable, athletic defensive ends. UT needs to keep its quarterback's jersey clean. If the Vols do, they'll win.

South Carolina Keys to Victory

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    Get the ball to Pharoh

    If there's one thing Orth must do against Tennessee, it's get the ball to dynamic receiver Pharoh Cooper. 

    He's quite possibly the best receiver in the SEC, and he's enjoyed four 100-yard receiving games this season. For the year, the junior has 44 catches for 609 yards and four scores.

    He destroyed Tennessee a season ago in a 45-42 loss, turning in one of the greatest all-around games you'll ever see. 

    Cooper scored touchdowns in three facets of the game (rushing, passing and receiving). He wound up with four touchdowns on the night and also amassed a record-breaking receiving night with 11 catches for 233 yards, capped by an 85-yard score.

    Tennessee should shadow him with Cameron Sutton all night and shade a safety in his direction. South Carolina could win, but the Vols can't let Cooper beat them.

    Force miscues

    As poor as South Carolina's defense has been the past two years, it's hard to ask the Gamecocks to stop Tennessee's explosive offense from gaining a bunch of yards.

    So, they need to get some pressure on Joshua Dobbs and force him into some interceptions. They also need to try to get some ball disruptions and recover some fumbles.

    As much as Dobbs is improving in the passing game, he's still far from accurate. Against Kentucky, Tennessee worked the middle of the field more than it has all season, and Dobbs got away with some high passes. That's where interceptions are thrown, and it would behoove Carolina to drop a linebacker and play zone.

    If the Gamecocks can get some momentum-swinging turnovers, it'll be anybody's game.

    May the Orth be with you

    Perry Orth, the 6'1", 203-pound redshirt junior quarterback of the Gamecocks, came to the school as a sixth-string walk-on quarterback. Right now, he's the starter over the season's initial starter (Connor Mitch) and the star freshman (Lorenzo Nunez).

    With Carolina riding him, he has to minimize the mistakes. Orth played his best game of the season against Texas A&M with a 66-yard touchdown run as well as 192 passing yards. But he also threw two interceptions, including a back-breaking pick-six.

    "I think Perry played pretty well," head coach Shawn Elliott told the State's David Cloninger. "The interception for the touchdown…oooh, man, if he could have that one throw back."

    Orth's mistakes were tough to overcome. But he's still an athletic quarterback who is growing within the framework of the office. Carolina did some nice things against the Aggies, and Orth needs to focus on those and throw away the blunders.

Tennessee Players to Watch

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    Derek Barnett

    This is more like it.

    The sophomore from Brentwood spent much of the first half of the season frustrated, failing to dominate games the way he had as a true freshman a season ago. When Curt Maggitt went out, other teams keyed on him more. Though they didn't neutralize Barnett, he wasn't making the same impact plays from a season ago.

    That's no longer the case. Barnett was a force to be reckoned with against Kentucky, taking over the game at times. He has sacks in his past three games, coinciding with the emergence of junior bookend Corey Vereen.

    "The All-SEC defensive end was again unblockable off the edge, collecting seven tackles, two tackles for loss, two sacks and drawing multiple holding penalties," GoVols247's Wes Rucker wrote. "Barnett, like Vereen, has found another gear the past couple of weeks, and the Vols are looking much better on defense as a result."

    When Barnett is on, Tennessee is a different defense. With his latest surge, he's third on the team in tackles and second with 6.5 tackles for a loss while leading the Vols with five sacks. He's returning to his old form.

    Josh Malone

    The sophomore receiver was coveted by many of the top teams in the nation, and he chose to stay home and play for coach Butch Jones.

    After a shaky freshman year, he is becoming the bell cow of the receiving corps. Malone had a 75-yard touchdown grab against Kentucky that fueled UT's first 100-yard receiving performance in a game this season.

    He leads the Vols with 23 catches for 315 yards and two touchdowns, and he has become Joshua Dobbs' go-to target. At 6'3", he's got the size to go up and get passes, and now that he's running sharper routes, he's open a lot more often. He has to work on the drops, but he's getting there.

    Malone has the ability to be a brilliant weapon for the Vols, and it looks like he's beginning to come into his own.

    Evan Berry

    Tennessee's dynamite sophomore specialist goes by the handle of "Superman" on Twitter. It's hard to dispute that with the way he's playing.

    Berry leads the nation with a 42.6 average on kickoff returns. He leads the nation in return yards and took three to the house already. One more, and he'll break Willie Gault's single-season school record.

    The younger brother of NFL All-Pro and former Vol Thorpe Award winner Eric Berry is also getting closer to carving out some snaps for himself at safety. Late in the season, UT needs him to get in the mix.

    They can use his speed and athleticism on the field.

South Carolina Players to Watch

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    Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

    Skai Moore

    He's a diamond in a bucket of quartz, a Porterhouse on a plate full of ground beef. That's what South Carolina junior linebacker Skai Moore is on the Gamecocks' horrible defense.

    Don't let the team struggles fool you; Moore is a superstar. 

    The 6'2", 218-pound speedy tackle machine had 14 of them against Texas A&M, and that's already the fifth time this year he has gone over 10 in a game. He's an All-SEC-caliber linebacker, and you'd hear his name a lot more if the rest of Carolina's defense was any good.

    Moore has 83 tackles and four interceptions. He's everywhere all the time.

    Think of UT's Jalen Reeves-Maybin, put a garnet and black jersey on him and you've pretty much got Moore. Yeah, the Vols need to account for him.

    Pharoh Cooper

    Was it mentioned that he had 11 catches for 233 yards and scored four touchdowns against the Vols last year?

    Yeah? Well, it needs to be discussed again.

    Neither Tennessee nor anybody else in the league had much luck with receivers named Cooper last year (Pharoh and Amari), and the Vols desperately need to game-plan for him, scheme around him, do everything they can to minimize his touches.

    Against Texas A&M, Cooper had just four grabs for 22 yards, which is borderline criminal. Whatever they did, UT needs to watch film on and replicate. Cooper is scary good, and UT defensive backs are still probably seeing him in their nightmares.

    Brandon Wilds

    Many expected leading up to the season that the senior running back would be usurped by a younger, more dynamic back such as David Williams.

    All Wilds has done and continues to do is post numbers. He leads the team with 428 rushing yards and is averaging 5.6 yards per carry. All that, and he's missed three games. He already has three 100-yard rushing games and is coming off a 128-yard, two-touchdown performance against Texas A&M.

    The State's David Cloninger was a believer in Wilds all along, and he has been waiting for Saturday's version to arrive.

    That’s the Brandon Wilds I thought I’d see all season. Lowering his pads, blasting through holes, making cuts and people miss on one of the best runs I’ve ever seen at any level. I don’t know who that petulant child I saw earlier in the year was compared to the man I saw Saturday. Even the play where he couldn’t get the play-call, then still missed it when Orth was left to hand off to nobody who was there, was more comic relief than a criticism.

    Wilds torched UT as a freshman three years ago, and he has enjoyed big games versus the Vols before. It's going to be a key to keep him in check.

What They're Saying

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    Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

    Tennessee dealt with tons of early-season adversity this year, losing star players, other starters and then losing games by heartbreaking ways.

    The Vols blew double-digit, fourth-quarter leads over Oklahoma and Florida and blew another early two-touchdown lead against Arkansas. They heard the fans' frustrations, and they bonded together in the process, they say.

    After a lopsided Kentucky win, return specialist Evan Berry told Volquest's John Brice that this is just the nature of the sport.

    "Obviously, it's a pretty tough sport and you can't go out there half-stepping," Berry said. "So, yeah, it's a game for dogs."

    There may be a quarterback controversy brewing in Columbia, as interim coach Shawn Elliott has Lorenzo Nunez ready to go but Perry Orth is the starter.

    After two big miscues against Texas A&M, Orth earned the vote of confidence from several teammates, including running back Brandon Wilds, according to a tweet from the State's David Cloninger:

    "We believe in Perry," Wilds said. "He has heart."

    Tennessee is going to be without sophomore reserve cornerback Emmanuel Moseley after one of the most asinine targeting calls you'll ever see was called and then inexplicably upheld by the review booth.

    Though it was a call that drew the ire of thousands of fans and a bunch of different media members for the sheer blatant ridiculousness of it, Moseley will miss the first half of the South Carolina game.

    As GoVols247's Wes Rucker wrote, it can't be appealed.

    SEC Director of Communications Chuck Dunlap issued a statement to GoVols247 on Sunday night confirming that any targeting decision made by a instant replay official—and any possible suspension as a result—is “final” and “not subject to appeal.”

    Dunlap spoke with officials and referenced a “national protocol” regarding targeting rules.

    "Targeting fouls and subsequent ejections are not subject to appeal after replay," Dunlap's statement said. "The national protocol is as follows: The Instant Replay Official shall initiate a review of all targeting fouls. If the Instant Replay official reverses the disqualification, the player may remain in the game. If Instant Replay confirms or lets stand the targeting foul, the disqualification will remain. The decision of the Instant Replay official is final."

Prediction

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    Bryan Lynn-USA TODAY Sports

    South Carolina is perfectly capable of coming into Neyland and pulling an upset. Though the Gamecocks aren't what they've been in past seasons, they've still got some offensive playmakers, and the team seemed to really respond to coach Shawn Elliott.

    But there are huge gaps on defense, and Carolina can't consistently keep anything going in the passing game, either.

    That's why it's going to be a tall task to ask them to come in and beat Tennessee at home when the Vols are playing at such a high level.

    No matter how much Vols fans cringe to think about it, their team really should be 7-1 right now. Tennessee is that good of a football team, and the early-season gaffes—though way, way in the rear-view mirror—loom large.

    Still, that doesn't change how good the Vols are, and they're playing at an extremely high level. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs is making plays all over the field, and the running back combo of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara have Tennessee up to 22nd nationally in rush offense.

    Receiving weapons are emerging in Josh Malone, Von Pearson and Ethan Wolf, and the special teams are truly special. 

    They're even getting a little swagger back on defense.

    That's why UT is going to win relatively easily in Knoxville against the Gamecocks. You can never take teams with a revenge factor lightly, but it's difficult to believe South Carolina has enough weapons to hang around.


    Prediction: Vols 41, South Carolina 23

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