This post continues our series previewing next year's opponents. Today we're looking at the Tennessee Volunteers. While some of the other games have been moved from their usual dates due to the scheduling modifications made because of conference expansion, the UT game will take place on its traditional spot on the last weekend in October.
Over the past few years, UT has gone from being one of the most eagerly anticipated games of the season for Carolina fans to taking a definite backseat behind other SEC series, particularly the ones against UGA, UF, and Arkansas. This is largely because of just how precipitously Tennessee has fallen in recent years. Even though we've won two straight against both, there's still a sense that we've got ground to cover in the series against UF and UGA. This is partially a function of recruiting; while we've upgraded our talent base, we're still somewhat behind those two schools, which both routinely bring in top classes. That's not true for UT. The Vols' struggles on the field have, at least since Lane Kiffin left town, translated into an inability to maintain footing in the SEC arms race. The Vols have had good classes, but in the SEC, it takes excellent classes to stay afloat. This, along with questionable leadership from Derek Dooley, has translated into the Vols failing to bring themselves out of the bottom half of the SEC East. UT has now had no less than four losing seasons since 2005. That's decidedly worse than USC. For the time being, at least, it appears that we've passed these guys.
Still, this remains an important series. In some ways, it's perhaps more important than UGA or UF. The trick with the UT series has a lot to do, again, with recruiting. Of all the SEC states with big-time football programs, Tennessee probably has the thinnest base of in-state prep talent, and for that reason, the Vols have to go elsewhere to fill out a roster that can compete at the highest level. They used to be quite successful at this, and perhaps more so than any other SEC program, UT has a long history of poaching great prospects from not only South Carolina but also areas of North Carolina that we want to gain a deep foothold in. However, in recent years, we've typically won our major recruiting battles with UT, and the results have made a large impact on the seemingly diametrically opposed directions these two programs are going in. We need to keep beating Tennessee to aid our battle to make sure that the Vols don't regain their advantage over us. This will be particularly key if the Vols eventually can Dooley, which I feel is likely to happen sooner rather than later based on the lack of progress UT appears to be making under his leadership. When that happens, UT--which remains one of the richest programs in the nation--will make a splashy hire of someone who can handle the challenge of getting UT involved in the SEC again. That's when I think UT-USC will get interesting. Of course, it could be Dooley who leads that charge, although I don't see it that way. It'll happen one way or the other, though.
For now, I think that this is a game that we should win again this year. That's not to say that UT isn't dangerous. I seriously doubt that they go 5-7 again this year, even with a relatively difficult schedule. The Vols' passing game should be fantastic (with Tyler Bray, Da'Rick Rogers, Justin Hunter, and Cordarelle Patterson) and could be a major challenge for a potentially thin Gamecocks secondary. There's also a lot of young defensive talent in the linebacking corps and the secondary. However, the running game (no proven backs and a line that did well in pass blocking but couldn't get a push for the run) and the defensive front have much to prove. As the Gamecocks have learned in recent years, these are the things that win games in the SEC. With Carolina still likely better than UT in these key areas, we shouldn't have too much trouble with UT at home in Williams-Brice Stadium.