No witty statements this time. Just beat the Vols!
Our game tonight against the Vols may very well be the most important game of the year for us. It's not because Tennessee is a great team, or because the national media is going to give us major props if we win. The media isn't paying too much attention to us, and their main interest in this game pertains to Phil Fulmer's future. The reason this game is important is because a loss probably means another 6-6 or 7-5 season and yet another year at fourth in the SEC East standings. A win, on the other hand. gives us a very good chance at finishing in the top half of the division and finishing 8-4 and playing in the Outback or Chick-Peach-a Bowl. That would be a major step forward for Coach Spurrier's program, especially considering that we're on the verge of a potentially top ten recruiting class and a strong finish will likely sway a number of recruits our way. The future is now for the Gamecocks; in a down year for Tennessee, the SEC as a whole, and our upstate rivals, we've never had a better chance to break through with a respectable season. Making it happen begins tonight.
Below are my three keys to victory.
Win the Turnover Battle
Let's get this out of the way: we are actually a better team than Tennessee this year. That means that we should win this game unless we make an array of bizarre mistakes. In regards to the offense, this means that we don't need to score 30 points, because the Vols won't score 20 and might not score 10 unless we give them to them. Stephen Garcia must protect the football, Mike Davis, Kenny Miles, or whoever else is running the ball can't fumble, and our special teams units can't give up bizarre plays a la the Vandy game.
On defense, we have to capitalize on opportunities. We've dropped lots of interceptions this year; we need to capitalize tonight when Nick Stephens makes a mistake. And I'm sure I don't need to remind anyone of the play below.
The final minutes of last year's game against the Vols has to go down as one of the most disappointing experiences in Carolina football history. If Tennessee tries to give us the ballgame like this again, we need to take it.
In short, I think we win this game if we have less turnovers than the Vols. We have a better offense (potentially much better if Garcia has learned anything over the idle week), and a slightly better defense that should match up very well against Tennessee's inept offense. However, we're not so good that we can afford to make mistakes. If we play like we did against NC State or Vandy, we'll lose this game.
Offensive Line Play and Stephen Garcia's Decision Making
This one's related to the point above. If our line (and our backs when they're blocking) can't protect Garcia, expect more of the second half against LSU. Even with their injuries, the Vols have the studs on the defensive front (Robert Ayers comes to mind) to beat our line down and knock Stephen Garcia in the mouth, leading either to 3rd-and-long situations or worse.
If the line can't get the job done, the onus will fall on Garcia (or Chris Smelley, if things get really bad) to make the right decisions. If Tennessee successfully imitates the vanilla schemes the Tigers used two weeks ago, Garcia needs to learn from his mistakes and either throw the ball away if someone's coming at him, change the play to a pitch to the runningback in the flats, or change it to a dump-off slant to McKinley, or to a WR screen. These latter three play would have worked against LSU a couple of weeks ago, and they'll work against the Vols if we need them.
Make the Kick, Succop!
Gamecock Man thinks Ryan Succop is one of the better kickers in college football. Succop is NFL material: a guy who has that rare mix of accuracy and distance that so many kickers lack. However, Succop has hit a slump lately. Part of it may be due to the abdominal strain that he suffered in practice before the Kentucky game, but Ryan has admitted that mental issues may be playing a part in his struggles. Message to Succop: quit thinking so much! You're a great kicker! You can make a 50 yarder with your eyes closed! It's like Steve Spurrier said: sometimes when you miss a put to the right, you think so hard about pulling the next one to the left, that you miss the next one wide left. Just go out there and kick it, Succop!
This game will likely be a close one, and if we have trouble in the red zone, Succop's leg will undoubtedly play a major role in the outcome of the game. Despite his troubles, I have the utmost confidence that Ryan is ready to win this game for us if it comes to that.
Like I said, it's now or never for our Fighting Gamecocks. Everything is in our favor: we're perfectly healthy and are very talented in most positions, we've had a week off to fix the problems that cost us the game against LSU, and Tennessee appears to be on the ropes and is not our equal for the first time in a long time.
Fortunately, I think there are so many things working in our favor this time that we should win this game. It won't come as easy as it might ought to; the Vols have a tough defense and will likely cause us problems early in the game. The second half, though, will be ours: Garcia, our defense, and the 12th man at the WB will take over late and lead us to victory against Tennessee: 27-20 Gamecocks!