The Gamecocks are in an interesting predicament this week. Will Muschamp will need to maintain his team’s focus to ensure they avoid a letdown in Knoxville. South Carolina is fresh off a 48-22 thrashing of Arkansas. Their defense scored three touchdowns, and had its best game of Muschamp’s tenure. The Gamecocks go on the road next to face a Tennessee Volunteers team in the midst of a possible meltdown. With most signs pointing in the favor of the Gamecocks on Saturday, it’s all the more reason to be on alert.
Although the opponent’s situation is vastly different, the feel leading up to this game is somewhat like the Kentucky contest over a month ago. And we all know how that turned out. With momentum building and things looking up, the letdown in the home opener was massive. The Gamecocks played their worst game of the year. On the other side, a Kentucky team that was looked at as an afterthought leading up to the game played at their best. Tennessee is having a myriad of issues hit its team right now. Despite some festering program turmoil and giving a freshman quarterback his first start, expect the Volunteers best effort of the year.
Each of the last five contests between these two teams has been decided by three points or less. The Volunteers are 3-2 in that span. Since 2000, this series has been one of the most closely contested of any in the SEC. It should surprise no-one if this game once again is decided in the final few minutes.
Rocky Times on Rocky Top
Coach Butch Jones is in a very tough spot. His clichés and press conference deflecting is growing tired in Knoxville. The fans of Big Orange expect wins and trophies, not missed opportunities and excuses. The Vols are fresh off a bye week following a 41-0 blowout loss to the Georgia Bulldogs. Tennessee sits at 3-2 overall and 0-2 in the SEC. They have not had the regulation lead in against a Power Five conference opponent so far in 2017. They did not lead in a week one victory over Georgia Tech until overtime.
Freshman Jarrett Guarantano will get his first career start this weekend for the Vols. He has played sparingly this season, completing 12-of-24 passes for 54 yards and a touchdown. His is a more mobile option under center than Quinten Dormandy, whom he replaced during the bye week. With such a small sample size, not much else is know about his abilities. He was a well-touted recruit, but is still a work in progress in the passing game.
One Man Show
Despite a shaky start for the team this year, tailback John Kelly is having an All-SEC season. He leads the team in rushing yards, receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns. His production not only leads the Volunteers, but is near the top in the SEC as well. They will look to get Kelly the ball in multiple ways. Through five games, he has 494 yards on the ground and another 229 through the air. The junior from Detroit has done a little of everything this season.
As Coach Muschamp described him in his weekly press conference, “He’s an outstanding football player, he runs violent.”
The Tennessee defense has been solid thus far this year. The gap between scores in the Georgia loss was due more to turnovers on offense than poor defense. It is still hard to get a read on this unit due to the competition. They allowed a lot of yards and points to Georgia Tech. With the Yellow Jackets running the triple option, judging them based on that is difficult. The numbers in their other games have not been bad, but they still have their issues. The Vols are at negative six in turnover margin, having only won the turnover battle once this season.
Gamecocks Keys To Avoid Letdown
As mentioned, the Gamecock defense had its best outing in quite some time this past Saturday. It was not just the three defensive scores, but the aggression and pressure they played with. It has been quite a while since South Carolina’s defensive line controlled a game in that fashion. Dante Sawyer and D.J. Wonnom were brilliant versus Arkansas. Both players frequently beat their blocker and created havoc in the back field. Sawyer had multiple tackled for loss including a sack and forced fumble that T.J. Brunson returned for a score. Wonnom made a few plays in the backfield as well, and tipped two passed at the line.
Coach Muschamp will need his defense to continue its growth, and get after a young quarterback making his first start. After such a dominant performance last week, they will need to guard against a letdown. This bend but don’t break unit has gotten better with each week. They have a chance to build on that further by harassing an inexperienced quarterback. After a few lean weeks, the Gamecocks got back to forcing turnovers against the Razorbacks. The Volunteers have been somewhat turnover prone, and South Carolina will try and continue that trend this week.
Senior linebacker Skai Moore had an interception return for a touchdown against Arkansas on Saturday. It was his 13th career interception. He is now only one away from tying Bo Davies’ school record for interceptions in a career.
South Carolina showed signs this past week of awakening from its offensive doldrums. They finished with 358 total yards, including 159 on the ground. Tailback Rico Dowdle looked much more like himself, showing the burst and fight he displayed as a freshman. Getting a solid rotation between him and Ty’Son Williams will help get the ground game back on the right track. Jake Bentley is still a bit erratic to begin games; he acknowledged as much this week. He usually finds a good rhythm during each contest, but better starts would lead to a more efficient offense overall. It’s also possible the Gamecocks could get a few of their injured offensive lineman back this week.
Though the game is in Neyland Stadium this weekend, there is still a chance for South Carolina to take advantage of the crowd. It is a noon kick-off and sometimes that can lead to a sleepy crowd not being in full voice. Add to that the disgruntled nature of many Volunteer fans right now, and a quick start for the Gamecocks could turn the crowd against its own team. A fast start, with an early score or turnover could rattle not only the crowd in orange, but the home team as well. South Carolina has a chance to get back over .500 in SEC play and get one step closer to a securing a winning 2017 record.
If the Gamecocks can put pressure on Tennessee early, it could make for a long day for Coach Butch Jones and company. As mentioned early though, fans of the garnet and black know all too well this scenario could be a set up for a letdown. South Carolina will look to avoid that, and keep the pressure mounting for the team on Rocky Top. In order to get a much needed road win in Knoxville, this team’s focus, energy, and intensity will be key.
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