The wild, wacky ride on Rocky Top since the hiring of Lane Kiffin after the 2008 season has been a well-documented one, and we don't need to go over it in depth again here. The long and short of it is that Lane Kiffin came, he saw, and he ran for his "dream job." Along the way, he pissed most SEC fans off with his loud-mouthed ways, but for some reason, Vols fans long in the habit of supporting the more taciturn Phil Fulmer went for what Kiffin was offering. Kiffin's recruiting prowess may have had something to do with that, of course. By the time the season began, we all knew Kiffin quite well, and the Vols' performance didn't fail to live up to the anticipated excitement. Although UT finished with a 7-6 record and had some ugly losses along the way, it also had some nice wins, particularly against Georgia and South Carolina, and played Florida respectably and by all accounts probably should have won against eventual national champion 'Bama. This was deemed progress by Vols' fans, and with a strong recruiting class in the works, there was some positive energy coming out of Knoxville for the first time since 2007. And then it happened. Kiffin chose to head to L. A. to captain the sinking S. S. SoCal, Tennessee was surprisingly jilted by a number of coaches, and the Vols finally settled on Derek Dooley. That's your scene-setter for this year. To Dooley's credit, he kept the recruiting class together and seems to have the goodwill of the Vols' fans, and they'll probably give him a pass if this year's depleted roster doesn't produce.
For South Carolina, this is a big game. As we have discussed here before at GABA, one long-term goal for the Gamecocks should be to move above the fourth spot in the SEC East on a more consistent basis. Beating UT is absolutely critical for achieving that goal, as they are the Eastern Division team that the Gamecocks are closest to in terms of talent. With the game in Columbia this year and Tennessee fielding a talented but extremely young roster, there's no excuse for not winning this game and inching a bit closer to Tennessee in terms of recognition in the conference.
Let's take a look at what Tennessee has this year.
Offense: The Vols, quite simply, are going to struggle on offense. Outside of the receiving corp and TE positions, this team has to replace just about every significant contributor from last season. First of all, they'll be starting a QB with no SEC experience. That appears right now to be JUCO transfer Matt Simms, but it could be true freshman Tyler Bray. Both are talented, and Simms isn't exactly unseasoned, but neither are sure-fire hits, either. The offensive line is also going to get a facelift, and while the group could be good one day, there's a steep learning curve for lines, so a good rush could be hell on the Vols. This is also bad news for a young (but also talented) running back stable that will be asked to carry the load for the offense. Dooley's offense ideally relies on the running game, but it's notoriously difficult to develop a good one without a stellar offensive line. If the running game doesn't take off, Dooley could be left dealing with a lot of 3rd-and-longs, and that could lead to trouble for his TO margin.
Defense: The Vols look a little more promising on defense. Eric Berry and Dan Williams are off to the NFL, but this group otherwise looks like it will be good. Depth may be a bit of an issue, but the Vols should be OK there, as well. At least Monte Kiffin won't be on the sidelines, but former Boise St. DC Justin Wilcox has gotten good reviews so far in Knoxville, although that could partially be because his unit dominated against the anemic offense in the Orange-White game. Gamecocks fans have seen that before and should know what it means.
Player Whose Name You Should Remember: Luke Stocker, TE. Stocker should play a major role in the offense this year. With a young QB under center, this talented big fella may provide a tentative Vols' passing game with a reliable target.
What to Expect: Any Vols fans reading will probably slam me for this, but I frankly expect this game to be a lot like 2008. It would be hard to expect as many gifts from UT this time around, but the scene should be similar. The Vols have the defense to hang with us, but their offense is likely to be sluggish and may be turnover-prone. We, on the other hand, should have a significantly better offense and a comparable, if perhaps slightly weaker, defense. Protecting the ball will be key. As long as we do that, I would expect that we'll slowly wear down a Vols defense that will be on the field a lot. Combine that with a home crowd, and all this should result in a similar final score, even if the game doesn't get out of hand quite as quickly as it did in 2008.
Prediction: I'm going to go with 24-10, Gamecocks.