Will Shelton of SB Nation's well-known Tennessee blog Rocky Top Talk chatted with me about this weekend's showdown in Knoxville. His answers to my questions about UT are below. Stay tuned for a link to my answers to his questions. Also be sure to check out their weekly podcast, which I joined to talk about the game.
1. There was a fair bit of conversation at our site when Butch Jones was hired regarding how Jones was likely a substantial step up from Derek Dooley. Tell us how you feel about Jones so far. How substantial is the recruiting job he has ahead of him?
Tennessee fans, myself included, were so busy lamenting a near miss on Charlie Strong and a perceived miss on Jon Gruden that we were really indifferent or even upset when Butch Jones was hired. Then Butch failed to successfully court assistant coaches and Vol legends Tee Martin (stayed at USC) and our mutual friend Jay Graham (went to Florida State), and had a big signing day miss when five-star safety Vonn Bell signed with Ohio State. But from signing day until the Oregon game, Butch Jones did everything right. Tennessee had the projected number one 2014 recruiting class (according to Rivals) for most of the summer and currently checks in at number two, which is astounding given the fact that Tennessee had the 79th best winning percentage in college football from 2008-12 (28-34 in Fulmer's last year, Kiffin's year, and Dooley's term). Butch Jones also did all the little things to endear himself to the fanbase and, more importantly, former players. For instance, Peyton Manning is always going to support the Vols, but Butch got Arian Foster to return to campus for the first time since graduation, brought guys like Jamal Lewis who hadn't been around in forever back in the fold, and made everyone who makes up the Tennessee Football family - former players, alumni, fans - believe he was the right man for the job. The Vols will always have a substantial recruiting task because of location, but this was an unusually strong year in the state of Tennessee and a unique year with a ton of high level prospects with ties to past players, and Butch has capitalized: of UT's thirteen current four and five star commitments, five are from Tennessee and a sixth, Dillon Bates, is the son of former Vol and Dallas Cowboy Bill Bates. Tennessee is recruiting on a championship level again and getting the kind of talent on campus for visits we haven't seen since the first half of Phillip Fulmer's tenure. The only question here is if Butch can continue to recruit this well when the in-state talent isn't this good. On the field the Vols are 3-3 as expected at this point, but the near miss against Georgia has certainly elevated expectations in the present as well. We're one signature win away from the full buy-in.
2. The Vols appear to have experienced a sea change on offense, going from a pass-happy team the past two years to a run-first team that seems to struggle to pass this year. How would you describe the offense's strengths and weaknesses? South Carolina has fared well against teams that run well but can't pass. Is Tennessee in that category?
Tennessee is definitely in that category, though not to the extent Arkansas was after Justin Worley's performance against Georgia. Tennessee's outright offensive strength is on the line, which the Vols believe is the best in the SEC if not the nation. Tennessee is fifth nationally in TFLs allowed and inexperienced Vol quarterbacks have been sacked just seven times in six games. Tennessee tailbacks Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane (who was out against Georgia but should play this week) aren't superstars but have been around the block enough to get the job done behind this line; the Vols are currently 20th nationally in yards per carry at 5.36 with no help from the quarterbacks; Neal and Lane together average 5.85. Tennessee's struggles in the pass game are in part due to the team's leading receivers being three freshmen and a sophomore, but have mainly fallen on the shoulders of Justin Worley. Worley's improvement against Georgia didn't make him an all-star or anything, he's still 11th among SEC starters in completion percentage and dead last in yards per attempt. But against the Dawgs he was lights out in the second half and especially on third and fourth down, and finished 17 of 31 for 215 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. That's the guy this offense with this run game hoped he could be, and if he can just be okay and not turn it over the Vols will like their chances much better.
3. Tennessee seems to have struggled in general on defense so far. Is that accurate, or is it partially a matter of having played teams like Oregon and Georgia? Is there anything UT does particularly well on defense? What are its greatest weaknesses? How should its defense fare against a very balanced South Carolina offense?
The numbers are mostly due to playing Oregon and giving up 687 yards and 59 points. Tennessee still has little defensive depth, and the guys with the most upside like LB A.J. Johnson and DT Daniel McCullers are just not at all suited to stop a team like Oregon. We saw this against Florida too, even with a backup quarterback: when a team gets the ball to athletes in space, this year the Vols have generally been in the right places to make a play thanks to better coaching, but have failed to make the play usually because the guy with the ball is just better/faster. Tennessee starts a true freshman at one corner and a former walk-on at nickelback, and still hasn't seen LB Curt Maggitt return from an ACL tear in November of last year. Tennessee has been particularly good at creating turnovers, though put an asterisk beside the Western Kentucky game where the Hilltoppers turned it over five times in six plays. Even after an o-fer against Aaron Murray and a bye week, the Vols are still sixth nationally with eleven picks on the year, and thirteenth nationally with fifteen total turnovers created. Until Aaron Murray the Vols were also particularly good at keeping teams out of the end zone once they entered the red zone, something Butch Jones teams have been very good at traditionally. The Vols are built to fare better against balanced offenses right now, but that doesn't mean South Carolina won't have opportunities to hurt this team in the pass game.
4. If you could have one USC player other than Clowney, who would it be and why?
For this particular Tennessee team, we'd take Connor Shaw. The Vols don't have the experience at wide receiver to be a serious passing threat, but a capable quarterback would've been a huge upgrade for this team, especially one that hasn't been prone to mistakes like Shaw. A guy like that with a run game like ours, someone who at least had to be respected throwing the ball downfield, would've made a huge difference to this team.
5. Give us a prediction.
I have said many times there is no fanbase who underestimates South Carolina like Tennessee, both because of the Vols' historical success against the Gamecocks until 2008, and because in each of the last three years Vol fans feel like we could've/should've won the game if not for turnovers despite a significant talent advantage for Carolina. The Vols lost the turnover battle 4-1 in 2010 with a pick six, threw two picks in the end zone (plus a blocked field goal) in 2011, and we all know what happened at the end of the game last season. The Vols have been right there in each of the last three years, but South Carolina to their absolute credit has made the plays defensively to get the wins.
It's that sense of being right there that has Tennessee fans on edge. We've lost 19 in a row to ranked teams since we beat you guys in 2009. I think with the way the Vols played against Georgia, the bye week, and South Carolina's tendency to play to its opponent (hopefully happily coinciding with a false sense of security after last week), and plain and simple just the way Tennessee is due, I like the Vols to win a very close game somewhere in the 20s as long as they take care of the football. I think Tennessee can protect its defense and its quarterback well enough via the ground game to score enough points, and I'm taking Tennessee's chances of creating turnovers at home over Connor Shaw's current inability to be generous. Everybody here knows what a signature win for Butch Jones would do, and I think this is the week it is most likely to happen. You should take all of that with a huge grain of salt due to the aforementioned underestimation of what certainly appears to be a good South Carolina team.