Gamecocks Come a’Calling
Recent events have transpired to make this upcoming matchup with the South Carolina Gamecocks a very interesting affair.
Those events surrounding the Vols have been well-chronicled here. Tyler Bray goes down with an injury. Matt Simms in Year 2 is the Matt Simms of Year 1, and is thusly benched. Enter a native South Carolinian, true freshman Justin Worley – whose redshirt was burned during the final moments of Bama’s torching of Tennessee – who will make his first collegiate start Saturday night. There has also been the Vols’ habit of imploding in the second half against SEC opponents. And the slow, ponderous Vol secondary has made running downfield routes by our opponents ever more popular.
But, there have been positives. Tauren Poole has been running better of late. The defense, especially the linebacking corps, are showing the ‘stature’ that Derek Dooley has been talking about. Most welcome has been the emergence of Michael Palardy as a quality place kicker and punter. And, the return game has shown signs of pulling off that big play that could turn, and win, a big game.
Rightfully so, the emergency of Worley on the big stage is the story line of the week. We’ll see how he handles the situation, and how the uber-expectation level of Vol fans react to every little mistake made by the former high school player of the year.
Even Peyton Manning didn’t win his first start.
It is most definitely a daunting task that the youngster is facing. His first start (his first game apart from a handful of snaps last week) will be against a pass defense that is ranked first in the nation, having given up only 133.7 passing yards per game this season.
Sounds like Plan A will be the old-fashioned run to set up the passing game. Hopefully Tauren Poole and Co. are healthy and ready (USC gives up 144 yards on the ground per game, 53rd in the nation). Otherwise, it could be a very long night. Or, perhaps Dooley and Wilcox go to more of a spread offensive set to allow Worley less worry with sacks and more focus on what he does best – quick passes to receivers on short routes.
So what about the Number 13 Gamecocks? They have a lot of interesting things going on in their camp, too.
Because senior QB Stephen Garcia was dismissed from the team on 11 October, sophomore Conner Shaw will be the helmsman for the Gamecocks. Garcia had thrown nine INTs and only four TDs in his five games this year, so perhaps it isn’t such a big advantage having the young Shaw at the steering wheel. Couple that with the Vols having the worst pass defense in the SEC, even Matt Simms could flourish for Spurrier this week.
What really is hurting the Gamecocks is that their rushing game is a mess. Superstar RB Marcus Lattimore is gone for the season after busting up his knee two weeks ago. A true freshman, Brandon Wilds, has ‘taken over’. Well, 75 yards on 13 carries isn’t exactly taking over, but he’s apparently pretty much all they’ve got in Columbia. That doesn’t bode well for repeating as SEC East champs.
What the Gamecocks still retain is their big-play man, junior WR Alshon Jeffery (30 receptions and 5 TDs). He’s a sure thing to be able to bust by the Vols’ cornermen, but it remains to be seen if Shaw can get the ball to him.
Add in the fact that South Carolina has the No. 2 QB sacker in the SEC, senior Melvin Ingram, and the SEC’s fourth highest tackler, senior Antonio Allen, and we’re talking about perhaps more than this Vols team can handle at the moment.
So, let’s put Saturday’s game in perspective of a little history.
The Vols have dominated the Gamecocks (15-4) since Clemson’s arch-rival was admitted to the SEC about 20 years ago (and 22-5-2 overall). It’s been such a dominating affair that the Vols have never lost consecutive games against the Gamecocks. But three of the five Vol losses have occurred in the last six games, including last season’s game. That means that a South Carolina win Saturday sets a series record.
Also, think about this. UT is 0-4 in the SEC. A loss Saturday would put them at 0-5, periously close to the most conference losses ever by a Tennessee team – six (in 1962 and 1963) – with three conference games yet to be played, one of which is at Arkansas. [NOTES: Each coach of the ’62 and ’63 teams were not around for the following seasons. Also, there were many seasons that the Vols only played 6 conference games.]
Yes, dark clouds are on the horizon, but a win Saturday would blow them out of sight.
Unfortunately, I can’t pick the Vols to beat a Top 20 team yet, even if it is South Carolina, and in Knoxville.
South Carolina 27 Tennessee 20
Statistics are from cfbstats.com