This post continues our series breaking down the Gamecocks' 2013 opponents. Game seven takes us to Knoxville, TN to take on the Tennessee Volunteers. This game has been moved up from its traditional Halloween-weekend slot to October 19th as part of the SEC's current schedule-as-you-go approach. As an aside, the Vols play Alabama on Halloween weekend, meaning the Third Saturday in October will take place on the fourth Saturday in October. Good job on that schedule, SEC!
The Gamecocks are currently in the midst of an unprecedented three-game win streak over the Vols. That's partly because the rise of our program has taken place in conjunction with an one of the most abysmal stretches in the history of Tennessee football, with the Vols failing to achieve a winning record during Derek Dooley's three years on Rocky Top. To put the streak in historical perspective, prior to the three wins, we had only beaten Tennessee four times over our entire history, and two of those times came during the early years of the Spurrier era. Yes, times have changed in this series.
Last year's game was perhaps our most dramatic of the year. After taking an early lead, we suffered through Marcus Lattimore's tragic injury. The Gamecocks maintained the lead on the heels of some good QB play from Connor Shaw, but Tennessee was in position to take the lead or force overtime late, when Jadeveon Clowney made one of his best plays of the year in forcing a Tyler Bray fumble that was recovered by USC. Carolina would hang on for the victory. Dooley would later say that Clowney cost him his job, which may not be far from the truth considering that a UT victory would have given Dooley his first signature win and a little momentum going into a late-season stretch when the Vols often looked emotionally beaten and uninspired.
The Vols hired Butch Jones from Cincinnati to take over for Dooley. While not necessarily a slam-dunk hire, Jones comes in with an impressive 50-27 overall record at Central Michigan and Cincinnati. A large portion of those losses came in his first season at Cinci, when he went 4-8 in a rebuilding year before quickly turning things around with a ten-win season the following year. Jones certainly has the track record that many recognized Dooley lacked when Dooley came to UT.
So far in Knoxville, Jones has reenergized the fanbase with some positive momentum in recruiting. We've obviously heard that story before from Big Orange Country, but in case it's for real this time, it's worth reiterating how important the series with UT is for South Carolina going forward. As a program that relied on out-of-state talent during its successful years, UT has often poached talented players from the state of South Carolina. More recently, USC and Clemson have kept UT out of the state, and we've done a good job of taking players from North Carolina that the Vols used to get, too. We need to keep beating the Vols in order to keep the message clear in the heads of recruits that being a Gamecock is a better option than being a Vol. That's particularly true right now, when we still have a talent advantage over Tennessee. Things will get tougher in a couple of years if Jones continues to recruit well, but if we take care of ourselves, we'll be able to continue winning games in the series, even if it evens out a bit.
As for this season, the Vols have a lot of question marks on offense after losing Bray, a bevy of key receivers, and some offensive-line talent. Pete Fiutak had this to say about the Vols' offense:
What to watch for on offense: Passing game, passing game, passing game. The example is 2012 Michigan State. Last year’s Spartans had a whale of an offensive line and a great running game, but the offense didn’t go anywhere – finishing 108th in the nation in scoring and 95th in total offense - because the entire receiving corps had to be replaced and the quarterback situation was iffy. The rushing tandem of Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane will be fantastic behind one of the nation’s most experienced and effective offensive fronts, but offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian has the brutal task of replacing quarterback Tyler Bray, tight end Mychal Rivera and receivers Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson and Zach Rogers. Like the Spartans last offseason, the Tennessee receivers had a rocky spring this year. If they don’t come through the O won’t go anywhere.
As you can see, the Vols do return some production at running back, and they also have a good enough offensive line despite losing some key players. However, the running game was a weakness for Tennessee in recent years, and even if it's improved this year, it won't matter if the passing game doesn't have any juice, which is a distinct possibility given the lack of a proven go-to option at receiver and an uncertain QB situation.
The defense is more experienced, returning either starters. However, this was arguably the SEC's worst defense a year ago. The Vols' offense was perfectly good enough to lead the way to eight to ten wins, but the defense cost Tennessee multiple shootout losses. So, the first question for the defense is whether a more experienced group of players means decent production, given how awful the group was last year. Secondary is especially a question mark. On the other hand, the Vols look to have a good defensive line (although they desperately need a better pass rush) and a very good linebacking corps. The linebackers are led by A.J. Johnson, a likely first-round pick and the Vols' best player. This guy was a real gem in an otherwise awful defense last year. The second question is the move to the 4-3 from the 3-4 the team was using last year, and whether UT will make that transition seamlessly.
Despite its fall from grace, Tennessee has not been an absolutely awful team in recent years, as evidenced by the fact that all of the wins in our three-win streak have been at least somewhat close. Dooley's teams generally had some weapons here and there coupled with some serious weaknesses. They were also teams that were unable to close out the many winnable games they played against good teams. That's all to say that things probably aren't as bad in Knoxville as they might seem, and if Jones and his staff are worth their snuff, they'll put a decent product on the field this season in preparation for bigger things to come in following years. Therefore, while we *should* win this game, we're likely to be in for a fight and will need to play well to leave Knoxville with a win.