Tennessee vs. South Carolina: Game Preview, Prediction and Players to Watch
Tennessee head coach Butch Jones owns South Carolina. Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp owns the Volunteers.
Something's got to give Saturday night in Columbia, South Carolina.
Fresh off a much-needed bye week, No. 18 Tennessee needs to get back to its winning ways after dropping games against Texas A&M and Alabama. Jones hasn't lost to the Gamecocks in three tries.
While UT has endured season-ending injuries to linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie, among other setbacks such as star cornerback Cameron Sutton's foot injury and running back Alvin Kamara also out with a knee injury, the Vols will return much-needed help.
Middle linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. is expected to play, and the Vols get back a couple of offensive linemen and defensive backs, too. That'll help the skeleton crew UT pitched out there against Alabama.
Muschamp hopes he's found a star in true freshman quarterback Jake Bentley, who'll try to take a major step forward in his second career start. The first-year Carolina coach will try to carry over the spotless success he had over UT from his days coaching Florida.
There are a lot of storylines in Williams-Brice Stadium. Let's take a look at all you need to know about this game.
Date: Saturday, Oct. 29
Time: 7:15 p.m. ET
Place: Williams-Brice Stadium
Spread: Vols by 13, according to Odds Shark
Tennessee Keys to Victory
Jones has mentioned multiple times just how baffled he is by Tennessee's sputtering starts this season. The fourth-year head coach is running out of adjectives.
The Vols are fortunate to be 5-2 heading into the easiest stretch of their schedule, especially when you consider they've been outscored 77-17 in the first quarter.
For some reason, UT just doesn't wake up until the second half. Playing with fire finally burned the Vols in an embarrassing loss to Alabama. Now, after a week to recharge, UT hopes it's better.
"…[W]e have to be fresh. We have to be stronger," Jones told GoVols247's Ryan Callahan. "We have to be better in every aspect. We have to improve on our consistency, our discipline."
So many times these previews have mentioned that Tennessee has to let senior quarterback Joshua Dobbs be himself.
That didn't happen against Alabama.
It doesn't matter how much the Tide bottled him up with their imposing defensive front; Dobbs has to run the ball to be effective. He has to get to the edge, and he has to turn corners.
Two years ago, he beat South Carolina in his breakout game. This year, the Vols need Dobbs to get back to his dual-threat capabilities down the stretch and take over games. That starts this week.
Derek Barnett is having a first-team All-America campaign for the Vols, and the junior defensive end is unblockable at times.
The rest of Tennessee's pass-rushers have struggled.
It's time for Corey Vereen, LaTroy Lewis, Jonathan Kongbo and company to provide a little help and for defensive coordinator Bob Shoop to dial up the pressure against a true freshman quarterback. If Bentley beats you, he beats you, but you can't give him all day to throw. Not in his second career start.
South Carolina Keys to Victory
Big play day
South Carolina has struggled this season finding breakout weapons.
The Gamecocks are last in the SEC with just 75 plays from scrimmage that have gone 10 or more yards. But with Bentley's big arm now back there, it's possible they can get the ball to receivers Bryan Edwards and Deebo Samuel for big gains.
Running back A.J. Turner is capable of getting some long runs, too.
The Vols defense has been susceptible, allowing the second-most 40-plus-yard plays from scrimmage with 11. With Bentley under center, Carolina could improve in that area, especially if a couple of passes GridironNow.com's Heath Cline detailed are a sign of things to come:
Once, Bentley escaped a potential sack before rolling to his left and firing the ball down the left sideline for an open Deebo Samuel. Samuel couldn’t come up with it, but a 30-yard pass while on the move showed off Bentley’s arm strength. Another attempt for Samuel also failed to connect, but was a catchable ball 50 yards downfield. It remains to be seen what Bentley’s performance level against better competition will be, but he clearly has a level of talent neither of South Carolina’s other two quarterbacks have demonstrated this season.
That "arm talent" is something the Gamecocks have been lacking. Despite Bentley's inexperience, they've got it now.
Tennessee turnovers have come in heaps, and though the Vols improved on that with just one giveaway in a lopsided loss to Alabama, it's still plagued them.
After a dismal past few years, the Gamecocks have improved defensively under Muschamp, and they've proven to be opportunistic. They're currently fifth in the league with 14 takeaways.
But in a 34-28 win over UMass last weekend, Muschamp wasn't happy with his normally strong defense's reaction.
"I was not very pleased with our mental intensity, defensively. To me, in my opinion, we got up 27-7 and relaxed," Muschamp said, according to SEC Country's Hale McGranahan.
If the Gamecocks keep the pressure-cooker on UT, they've got a chance to make some game-changing turnovers.
Tennessee Players to Watch
Darrin Kirkland Jr.
Tennessee linebackers coach Tommy Thigpen offered up some potentially huge news on Monday to GoVols247's Grant Ramey:
"We're looking for guys like DK (Darrin Kirkland Jr.) to come back (and) Cortez McDowell," Thigpen added. "Getting (defensive tackle) Kendal Vickers back is going to be huge for us."
Kirkland hasn't played since suffering a high ankle sprain in a win over Virginia Tech, and though Colton Jumper has played admirably in his stead, UT needs Kirkland's athleticism. It would be particularly beneficial if the Vols can get him and Jumper on the field at the same time some.
The sophomore is a potential game-changer in the middle of the defense, and he could immediately help the Vols' porous rush defense if he is healthy.
With Alvin Kamara out this week, that means more carries for the sophomore from Detroit.
After breaking out with 89 yards on 13 carries against Texas A&M with Jalen Hurd out, Kelly was a non-factor against Alabama. It was puzzling the Vols elected not to use him.
But Kelly will definitely get carries with Kamara on the sideline. He hits the hole harder than any running back on UT's roster, and Vols fans should be excited to see him get an extended look. He needs a big game against the Gamecocks to help Hurd.
Jauan Jennings is Tennessee's most complete receiver, but true freshman Byrd is the most dynamic.
After a bye week, it's time for him to take the next step toward getting more integrated in the offense. The Vols could have a really big second half from Byrd, who appears to be a budding star.
Dobbs already is proving he likes to pass to the young slot receiver, and he's earned more reps over veteran Josh Smith. Tennessee needs to get him the ball in space and watch him fly.
South Carolina Players to Watch
When South Carolina hired Bobby Bentley to coach running backs, the Gamecocks got a nice boost with the commitment of his former 4-star son Jake, who elected to skip his senior season of high school in Opelika, Alabama, and head to Columbia.
Now, this appears to be the 6'3", 223-pound youngster's team.
He was 17-of-26 for 201 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions against the Minutemen, leading some reporters to ask about comparisons to former Carolina great Connor Shaw.
"Let's just take one day at a time," Muschamp said, according to SEC Country's David Wilson. "We beat UMass. It gets tougher next week."
Indeed it does, and the Vols can throw a lot of blitz packages at Bentley.
The former big-time recruit may be one of the best defenders you've not heard of.
The 6'0", 230-pound junior linebacker was recruited by a bunch of SEC schools, including Tennessee, when he chose the Gamecocks, and with Skai Moore out for the year, he's making his presence felt this season, tied for the lead on the team with 46 tackles and also tied with seven tackles for a loss.
He's a bit of a hybrid player who is fast and formidable, and he is a big reason why Carolina's defense is enjoying a resurgence in 2016. The Vols better know where he is at all times; he can disrupt offenses.
Carolina's 6'6", 227-pound "Buck" linebacker English is another hybrid, pass-rushing player who can blow up plays in the backfield. He leads the Gamecocks with six sacks this year, and three of those came against Kentucky.
The Vols have experienced plenty of offensive line woes this season, and they don't know yet who all is going to be healthy, especially at offensive tackle.
So, look for English, Allen-Williams and the rest of the crew to get after Dobbs.
What They're Saying
Butch Jones on Bentley's first game, according to the Post & Courier's David Caraviello:
I thought he did a very, very good job. He was animated. He has great intensity, and can throw the football. I thought he managed the offense very well. He took care of the football. He looked like a mature individual. He looked like a mature competitor that’s been there. You know his pedigree and his upbringing and all that, and I was very impressed with the way he handled the game.
Tennessee won't have Kamara available this week, but Jones told the VolQuest.com's Brent Hubbs that he was encouraged by news this week on the star running back's knee.
I'm very, very encouraged with the progression of Alvin. He won't available this week, but everything that has come back right now, we do anticipate him being back in a couple of weeks. That is very, very encouraging. I know he is upbeat and positive. Now how does the body heal, but as of right now he does not need surgery and we are anticipating him being back here in the next week or two.
SEC Country's Mike Griffith rated the Gamecocks as Tennessee's toughest remaining opponent. Why?
"The Gamecocks (3-4, 1-4) have played the Vols close of late, the past four games being decided by three points or less. Further, South Carolina coach will Muschamp went 4-0 against Tennessee when he was head coach at Florida from 2011-2014."
Muschamp is impressed with the Vols after their grind, according to Ramey:
"They went through probably as tough of a four-game stretch as I've (seen and) I've been in this league a long time," he said. "The opponents they had to play, you look at Florida, at Georgia and (Texas) A&M and Alabama. I know they’re banged up a little bit, but they've got a good football team."
No matter the records of these two teams, the last four games between them have been nail-biting, one-possession affairs.
Last year, Tennessee was fortunate that nickelback Malik Foreman stripped former Carolina tight end Jerell Adams of the ball deep in Vols territory on what could have been a last-minute, game-winning drive in Knoxville for the Gamecocks.
Tennessee won back in 2014 in Jones' first season when it had no business doing so, and the Vols also shocked South Carolina with a frantic overtime comeback in the Dobbs breakout party in '15. So, this game has a history of being tense.
That probably won't happen Saturday.
The Vols desperately needed a bye week and were "exhausted," according to Jones. They also were banged-up, and after playing the gauntlet of Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama, the Gamecocks and their oil-leaking offense will be a welcome sight.
Bentley could be a difference-maker down the road, and Brandon McIlwain would be a nice change-of-pace threat who could run the ball from the quarterback position, but the Vols have too many weapons. They should play their most complete game of the season with a little rest.
While this game could wind up closer than the 13-point margin, the Vols will still win by a couple of scores. It may not be the prettiest game, but it'll be one that's (finally) never really in question.
Prediction: Vols 34, South Carolina 23