SEC Eastern Division rivals meet in Columbia on Saturday afternoon, as the Tennessee Volunteers come calling on the 17th- ranked South Carolina Gamecocks.
Tennessee is 3-4 on the season, and the Vols have yet to win a conference game after losing three in a row and four of their last five. UT was totally dominated in its recent clash with top-ranked Alabama, falling to the Crimson Tide in a 44-13 final. The Volunteers have lost both of their previous two true road games, and they face a Gamecocks squad that is 4-0 at home this season.
Speaking of South Carolina, it is hoping to put the brakes on a two-game slide as it lost to nationally-ranked foes LSU (23-21) and Florida (44-11) in the last two weeks. Turnovers killed the Gamecocks against the Gators, but a little home cooking may be just what the doctor ordered as not only are they undefeated in Columbia this season, but this bout begins a stretch of three straight they will play in front of the hometown faithful.
Tennessee, which is playing a ranked opponent for the fourth straight week and hasn't beaten a ranked foe now in nearly three years (Oct. 31, 2009 vs. South Carolina, 31-13), owns a commanding 22-6-2 lead in the all-time series with South Carolina, but the Gamecocks have won the last two meetings. Since 2000, no matchup in the SEC has a narrower average margin of victory than the 9.17 points between these two clubs.
Production on offense really hasn't been Tennessee's problem this season, as the team averages 34.4 points and 453.7 total yards per game. QB Tyler Bray has thrown for more than 1,900 with 16 TDs and nine interceptions, hitting Justin Harper a team-high 39 times for 567 yards and four scores. Rajon Neal is UT's top ground gainer, having rumbled his way to 500 yards and five TDs, the team as a whole averaging 4.6 ypc and scoring a dozen rushing TDs. The offensive line has allowed just three sacks.
Conversely, the Tennessee defense is giving up 33.3 ppg as foes roll up 445.4 ypg. Defending the run (186.6 ypg) has at times proven futile, while the same can certainly be said for the pass (258.9 ypg). The good news is that opponents are converting just 34 percent of their third-down tries, while the Vols have come up with 13 turnovers. A.J. Johnson is far-and-away the team's top tackler with 77 stops, while Byron Moore has 53 tackles and a club-best four interceptions. Sentimore Darrington has just 13 total stops, but his four sacks are nearly half of the team's total of 10.
Tennessee was no match for Alabama last weekend, as the Volunteers were outgained 539-282, managing a mere 79 yards rushing in the lopsided affair. Bray completed only 13-of-27 pass attempts for 184 yards and he was picked off twice, while Marlin Lane finished with 103 total yards (55 rushing, 48 receiving) and Hunter turned four grabs into 70 yards.
Defensively, the Vols gave up 233 yards on the ground and 306 through the air, with Alabama scoring four TDs via the pass. Johnson logged 14 tackles, while Justin Coleman added 13.
Tennessee head coach Derek Dooley is trying to stay positive despite his team's recent woes, and knows a win here or there can make all the difference in the world.
"The hardest part is when you don't win," Dooley said. "It's tough physically, it's tough mentally and emotionally, but that is life in the SEC and everybody goes through some stretches. The toughest thing is your energy and your spirit is a little bit better when you can get a W and we haven't been able to do that yet."
South Carolina averages nearly twice as many points as it allows (31.2-16.2 ppg), the team utilizing a balanced game plan on offense (144.9 ypg, rushing, 210.0 ypg passing), while doing a solid job against both forms of attack (106.2 ypg rushing, 1759. ypg passing) on the defensive side of the ball.
Marcus Lattimore was once heralded as college football's next great running back, but injuries have kept him from realizing his full potential. He has tallied nearly 600 yards and 10 TDs this season, but averages just 74.6 ypg. As for QB Connor Shaw, he is completing 65.6 percent of his passes with nine TDs and only four interceptions, but he has thrown for only 982 yards, while Dylan Thompson has also seen action in all seven games and has five TDs against just a single pick, and he accounts for 84.7 ypg. Lattimore is USC's leader in receptions with 24, while Ace Sanders and Rory Anderson have four TD catches, and Damiere Byrd has a team-high 303 receiving yards.
Shaq Wilson sits atop the team's tackles list with 50, and Jadeveon Clowney has 7.5 of the Gamecocks' 29 sacks -- the team total leading the SEC and ranking fifth in the nation.
South Carolina turned the ball over three times in the first half of last week's game at Florida, all of which resulted in TDs for the Gators who produced a meager 183 yards of total offense on the day. Unfortunately, the Gamecocks generated just 191 yards, which included a paltry 36 net rushing yards. USC was credited with only 29 yards total in the first half. Thompson and Shaw combined for 155 passing yards, the team failing the find the end zone even once.
If not for the turnovers giving them superb field position, the Gators would have found it difficult to score as well as they finished with just 89 rushing yards and only 94 yards through the air. Florida QB Jeff Driskel did have four TD passes though, although none of them were longer than 13 yards. The Gamecocks recorded three sacks in the game, and Bowens led the USC stand with 11 tackles.
While doing his best not to take anything from Florida, South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier was critical of his team after the loss.
"The only thing you can hope is that your guys give it their best shot and not just lay the ball down and basically say 'Here Florida, we don't want to win. You guys take this fumble and this fumble and this fumble.' So it was sad, and on the other side, their defense stuffed us. They stopped our running game and passing game."