No. 18 Tennessee, South Carolina renew tight rivalry

After losing in overtime at Texas A&M and in lopsided fashion to Alabama at home, Tennessee needed last week's break before heading into the stretch run that it hopes will end with an SEC East Division title and a berth in the conference championship game.

The 18th-ranked Volunteers hope (5-2, 2-2 SEC) start with a trip to South Carolina (3-4, 1-4). The two teams meet at 7:15 p.m. Saturday (ESPN2) in Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C.

"I thought it was a very productive open week, work week," Tennessee coach Butch Jones said. "Now, what did we do with it? We had a lot of individuals gain physical reps. Some gained mental reps.

"Again, it's very, very important now that we get back to work and we have game-speed repetitions with some time off."

The Vols find themselves at a disadvantage in the division race for the first time since handing Florida its only loss back on Sept. 24. So far, that has been the only setback for the Gators, who play Georgia this weekend and have the postponed contest with LSU coming next month in Baton Rouge, La.

Tennessee can't afford another loss at this point.

"They understand the stakes," Jones said, referring to his players. "They understand the importance and the magnitude of each game. It's all about being a champion, an individual champion.

"What happens is to win championships, your team is comprised of individual champions. It's individuals that live their life like a champion. They're a champion every day by the way they handle their academics, by the way they handle their nutrition, their rest, their attitude, their practice, their mentality, by their style of play.

"We don't ever talk about winning championships. It's about being a champion each and every day, and we talk about that."

Recent history would seem to indicate that no matter what it may look like on paper, the game against South Carolina could work out to be a much bigger challenge for the Vols than might be expected.

The last four meetings have been decided by a total of 11 points, with the Gamecocks winning by 38-35 in Columbia in 2012 and the Vols by 23-21 (2013), 45-42 in overtime (2014) and 27-24 last year.

"As a coach, you sit and watch their body of work on video and I see a football team continuing to improve and get better and better," Jones said of the Gamecocks, who snapped a three-game losing streak with last week's 34-28 win over Massachusetts. "I'm very impressed with them defensively.

"They make you beat them. They make you beat them through execution. They're only giving up 21 points per game. I believe they're 11th in the country in red zone efficiency, so execution will be at a premium."

The Gamecocks played with a new starter at quarterback last week, yanking the redshirt off freshman Jake Bentley, who responded by completing 17 of 26 passes for 201 yards and two touchdowns. But this will be his first time against an SEC defense.

"Regardless of the situation, we have a lot of confidence in Jake and anybody we put on the field regardless of who they are and position concerned," South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. "Tennessee has a good football team. We've got to give those guys credit."

Muschamp singled out one Tennessee defender for particular attention. Defensive end Derek Barnett has 11.5 tackles for loss with six of the team's 10 sacks.

"I think he's the guy that can change games," Muschamp said, "and we need to account for him."

So, too, can Bentley's Tennessee counterpart at quarterback. Vols senior Josh Dobbs has rushed for 293 yards, third on the team, and passed for 1,525. Junior running back Jalen Hurd has rushed for 435 yards despite missing one game to injury.

"Josh Dobbs is a three-year starter in our league," Muschamp said. "He's won a bunch of ball games and does a great job. Jalen Hurd is a guy that runs extremely hard. He's tough, physical and competitive. He's going to fight for every yard.

"You're going to have to get a bunch of hats around the ball and gang-tackle this guy. You've got to finish on this guy. He's a very competitive runner."