Following a 52-7 rout of Arkansas in Fayetteville and Georgia’s upset loss at home against Missouri, spirits are high in Gamecock country. Two weeks ago, Georgia seemed unbeatable and it was a given that the Bulldogs would run away with the SEC East. After almost being upset by Tennessee, accruing detrimental injuries at skill positions, and losing at home to a surprising Missouri team, the East is now up for grabs with four viable contenders in Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, and Missouri. This makes Saturday’s noon matchup between the Gamecocks (5-1) and the Tennessee Volunteers (3-3) in Neyland Stadium on ESPN, a must win.
Despite all of the good fortune that South Carolina has had this year, the South Carolina coaching staff remains cautiously optimistic. Steve Spurrier acknowledged that South Carolina caught a few lucky breaks in the Arkansas game—two fumbles at the end of huge running plays, one of which cost Arkansas a late touchdown—and that their luck is not sure to last. The Gamecocks will have to continue to get better on both sides of the ball if they want second big road win in a row. Playing in the fourth biggest stadium in the country, in front of a crowd of 102,000 is no easy task and could be particularly tough for freshman. Should this game go down to the wire, home field advantage may have a part to play in this.
Tennessee is only 3-3 this year and 0-2 in the SEC. This is still a largely unknown group though, as their wins have come against significantly lesser opponents, and their losses have all been close—with the exception of the Oregon game—and to top 20 teams. They have been good running the ball, poor throwing the ball, and less than stellar defensively; yet, they almost upset a top ten team in Georgia, and played a good Florida team close until the fourth quarter.
The Gamecock offense has been pristinely directed by Connor Shaw—zero interceptions on the year—and beautifully complimented by the SEC’s leading rusher, Mike Davis, to record-setting heights. Since full records were first kept by the university in 1962, South Carolina has never seen such a prolific offense take the field.
At 486.5 yards per game—good for 24th in the nation—each facet of the Gamecock offense is having unprecedented success. The offensive line has performed better than any previous South Carolina o-line in recent history (or my living memory), Connor Shaw has the highest winning percentage as a starter by a considerable margin, sitting pretty at 22-4, the depth at receiver and lack of a star has led to production and equitable spreading of the ball, and the rushing attack has actually improved despite the departure of Marcus Lattimore.
The statistics would indicate that South Carolina should have no trouble scoring points against a Vols defense that is allowing 28 points a game and 471.3 yards per game, including 65 points allowed in their two SEC matchups this year. The interesting part of this is that in watching film, Spurrier deemed this secondary, which is second in the league with 11 interceptions and first with three defensive touchdowns, as the best that the Gamecocks have faced this year. The key to success offensively for South Carolina will be running the ball effectively, which has not been a problem this year.
Mike Davis is averaging 123 yards per game this year and an outrageous 6.7 yards per carry. He will be the workhorse in this game and should get the ball early and often. Connor Shaw is adding another 53 yards per game to that, and with Brandon Wilds still sidelined with an elbow injury, look for Shon Carson to be a contributor running the ball as well. Running the ball effectively early should open up the play action pass and allow Shaw to make a few plays through the air. With ten touchdowns and zero interceptions this year, Spurrier has the utmost trust in Shaw and will not be afraid to throw the ball against this impressive Volunteers secondary.
South Carolina’s defense has faced a great deal of criticism this year, and while a few near collapses in the fourth quarters of what should have been comfortable wins may have warranted it, this is still an elite SEC defense. Ranking third in total defense and in the top five in every major defensive statistic in the Southeastern Conference—where defense is king—is impressive no matter how you cut it.
Tennessee’s offense could be a likened to the Arkansas offense that the Gamecocks faced last weekend. The Vols are averaging 211 yards on the ground per game, which is only five yards less than the Razorbacks. The first priority for South Carolina will again be containing a talented back, this week in Rajion Neal, who is averaging 102 yards per game. Directing the Volunteers offense is Justin Worley, a junior from Rock Hill, SC. Like Allen, he is not exactly a game-changer, completing only 55.8 percent of his passes and has thrown only nine touchdowns to six interceptions.
The biggest obstacle to stopping this Tennessee offense this weekend could be injuries. Freshman Skai Moore—fourth on the team in tackles—suffered a mild concussion on the last play of the game in Fayetteville and is considered probable. Chaz Elder also finds himself in the same position, after getting the nod over Brison Williams and playing well against Arkansas.
Listed as questionable to doubtful Saturday are Bruce Ellington (ankle) and senior guard Ronald Patrick (ankle). The wide receiving corps is returning Shaq Roland from suspension this weekend and, while they will certainly miss Ellington should he not be able to go, should not see a considerable drop off in production. The absence of Patrick would be slightly more problematic; however, he was out of his cast during practice Wednesday and could play Saturday. Freshman Na’Ty Rodgers and Will Sport are considered the top two linemen who could fill that gap at right guard.
A road win in Neyland Stadium will be tough, particularly if the Gamecocks are limping in, but this game will be won in the trenches, as are so many in the SEC. Stopping the run, forcing Worley to put the ball in the air, and controlling the clock will be crucial to winning against a tricky Tennessee team.
For South Carolina, every game from here on out is a must-win. Georgia has slipped up once already; the Gamecocks will have to be perfect and will still need one more conference loss from Georgia to get back to Atlanta. The hunt for the East is alive and well again for the Gamecocks, but they have to take care of business and stay healthy, starting with Tennessee.