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Tennessee Volunteers at South Carolina Gamecocks preview: Keys to the game, prediction

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What does Carolina need to do to get back in the win column?

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Well, folks, the Gamecocks are 4-4 and coming off three straight SEC losses. Most of the season's original goals are not only off the table but have long since been burned in a dumpster fire. However, with four winnable games left to play, it's a realistic possibility that Carolina could win out, win its bowl game, finish the season on the fringe of the top 25, and recoup some momentum heading into the off-season.

If USC is to do that, it's essential that the Gamecocks defeat a Tennessee team that is also looking to salvage a disappointing season. The Gamecocks are back in black for this game, and with an evening kickoff, the crowd should be raucous. What does Carolina need to do to win? Read on.

Three Keys to Victory

3. Shake if off. I hate to seem cliche here, but the Gamecocks' collective psyche must be pretty fragile right now, and they need to shake off the recent losses and get the homestretch started off right with a victory over a very beatable Tennessee team. If Carolina plays like it's capable of playing, that is, if the offense plays like it did against Auburn and the defense at the very least plays something like it did against ECU and Georgia, Carolina should win this game, maybe by multiple scores. The team needs to get into whatever mental state it needs to be in to do that.

2. Limit turnovers. While Carolina's defense has been the culprit to varying degrees in all of the Gamecocks' losses, turnovers in the red zone have hurt Carolina significantly against both Kentucky and Auburn. Last week against Auburn, Carolina turned it over three times in the red zone, two on interceptions and one on downs. At the very least, the Gamecocks left 13 points on the board on these possessions, considering they could have kicked field goals on the interception drives and should have had a touchdown to a wide open Pharoh Cooper on the turnover-on-downs drive. Those 13 points would have likely won the game for Carolina. Against a stingy Vols defense, it's essential that the Gamecocks and especially QB Dylan Thompson avoid leaving points on the field when opportunities present themselves.

1. Improve in every respect on defense. It's hard to specify what the main problem for Carolina's defense is. The Gamecocks front doesn't get off blocks well. The linebackers are frequently out of position and take bad angles. The corners have played well at times but don't make the crucial plays on third down or when an interception is there for the taking. Safety play has been rife with poor tackling and playing out of position.  In short, the defense is a train wreck.

The good news is that Tennessee's offense is one of the worst in the league. This game provides the best chance outside of Furman that this defense has had all year to bowl over an opponent. The Vols have a few nice  playmakers such as frosh tailback Jalen Hurd, but overall they're either weak or very young at most positions.

One of the big keys is going to be containing Vols QB Joshua Dobbs if he is indeed the guy to get the call. Dobbs hurt Alabama with his feet last weekend, albeit after 'Bama had already put the game away and taken its foot off the gas. The Gamecocks must disrupt Dobbs with penetration, and the linebackers must make plays if he escapes the pocket. If they can do this, the defense stands to boost its confidence with a commanding performance this weekend.

I'm most curious to see the performance of our defensive line in this game, as Tennessee's offensive line gives up a lot of penetration. If Carolina indeed gets penetration up front, though, its essential that the rest of the defense contains Dobbs if he scrambles out of the pocket.

Prediction

Based on how the team has played this year, it's hard for me to see how this one is going to go. I have a feeling we're going to be impressed by the play of the defense, which has an opportunity to get right against a very poor offense. Tennessee fans are excited about what Joshua Dobbs did against 'Bama, and he likely will get his yards against us. However, there's a reason he was buried on the depth chart at the beginning of the season; one good performance in garbage time against 'Bama doesn't mean Dobbs is the answer for the Vols any more than one good performance in garbage time against LSU in 2007 meant Chris Smelley was a future star for the 'Cocks. I think our defense does better tomorrow. Our offense, though, has to keep playing like it did last week. Spurrier needs to stay aggressive, and Dylan needs to keep making plays while also eliminating the red-zone miscues. If all of this happens, I think we're going to roll the Vols roughly 38-20, much like we trounced them in black uniforms back in 2008. I'm not terribly confident in this prediction, though.