COLUMBIA, S.C. — It’s time for another edition of South Carolina-Tennessee, a series that has been defined by close games in recent seasons.
Mike Griffith, who covers Tennessee for SEC Country, was kind enough to answer a few questions we had about the Vols leading into Saturday’s 7:15 p.m. game at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Mike Wilson: Tennessee is coming off a brutal four-game stretch. What is the Vols’ mindset this week preparing for South Carolina?
Mike Griffith: Tennessee looks to go “1-0 every week” according to the team mantra. Quarterback Josh Dobbs said the Vols were 1-0 during the bye week, but I doubt the SEC league office will see it that way. Tennessee hopes to get most of its starting offensive linemen back after finishing the Alabama game with just one starter left on the field. It could be the fifth different starting O-Line combination the injury-riddle Vols have used this season. Each position on the offensive line has featured two different starters at some point through the first seven games. Then there’s the secondary, which could be on its seventh different combination of starters. So the mentality is, 1) win the game, and, 2) who’s this guy lining up to me this week?
Wilson: The Vols appeared to be playing decent run defense early this season, but recently that has reversed. What is behind those struggles? Was it just facing two very good teams, a byproduct of injuries or a combination of factors?
Griffith: I think the above reference to injuries answers the questions in part. And, yes, Tennessee has played a whale of a schedule, ranked No. 2 by the USA Today’s computer whiz, Jeff Sagarin of the Sagarin Ratings (Remember the BCS formula and its computer rankings? This was one of them). To the point, the Vols have lost two defensive tackles for the season — Danny O’Brien (starter, dismissed) and Kahlil McKenzie, who suffered a season-ending injury in his first start replacing O’Brien against Alabama two weeks ago. Tennessee is so thin at defensive tackle that 259-pound sophomore defensive end Kenny Phillips has been moved inside to back up starter Kendal Vickers, who will return to the starting lineup after getting knocked out of the Alabama game with an ankle injury.
Wilson: Josh Dobbs received quite the preseason billing. In your eyes, has he lived up to the expectations to this point?
Griffith: Dobbs is the reason Tennessee is 5-2 and not 3-4, as his mobility has helped compensate for what might be the worst offensive line in the SEC. Dobbs’ completion percentage (58.5) would be considerably higher if not for double-digit drops from the receiving corps. The Vols receivers have made some highlight catches during the team’s four come-from-behind wins after trailing by double digits, but they’ve also had their fair share of dropped passes in seemingly every outing. Dobbs is Tennessee’s most dangerous and consistent offensive threat. But he is not without his own issues, having lost two of the seven fumbles he has had this season.
Wilson: Tennessee is understandably a big favorite in this game against the Gamecocks. But what are some things that could be Tennessee’s undoing Saturday?
Griffith: Turnovers have been an issue for the Vols this season. That’s uncharacteristic of Butch Jones’ teams, but there have been plenty. The Vols have lost eight fumbles this season — and it could be worse, as they have put the ball on the ground 21 times. Tennessee has also had a propensity for slow starts, getting outscored 76-17 in the first quarter of games this season.
Wilson: How do you see things unfolding Saturday?
Griffith: I think recent history suggests a tight game, and I believe that will again be the case for three quarters. Tennessee’s skill position talent will ultimately rise to the top in a 24-14 game. The contest itself will be closer than the final score indicates, and the fans and Williams-Brice Stadium will be treated to some hard-hitting, high-flying action.