COLUMBIA, S.C. – After a midseason tilt with Massachusetts, South Carolina returns to SEC play on Saturday night.
Led by fourth-year coach Butch Jones, Tennessee (5-2, 2-2 SEC) arrives in Columbia after a much-needed bye week. The Vols’ four-week stretch against Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M and Alabama was one of the toughest South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said he has ever seen.
The Gamecocks are looking to snap a three-game losing streak to their SEC East rivals, but it won’t be easy, because the Vols have plenty of talent, despite a rash of season-ending injuries to several impact players.
When South Carolina is on offense …
Since Tennessee opened SEC play against the Gators, opposing quarterbacks have enjoyed varying degrees of success.
Florida’s Austin Appleby connected on 23 of 39 passes for 296 yards with three touchdowns and an interception. For Georgia, Jacob Eason completed 17 of 28 passes for 211 yards with two touchdowns and an interception.
Texas A&M quarterback Trevor Knight went 17 of 34 with 239 yards and two touchdowns and two interceptions, but he also rushed for 62 yards and three touchdowns. Jalen Hurts passed for 143 yards. Like Knight, a majority of his damage was done on the ground. The Alabama freshman rushed for 132 yards and three touchdowns.
South Carolina’s freshman quarterback duo of Jake Bentley and Brandon McIlwain will look to combine forces and put up points on a Tennessee defense that’s allowing an average of 29.9 per game, which ranks 11th among SEC teams.
The Vols are tied for 12th in the league with 11 touchdown passes and 14 rushing touchdowns allowed.
Another week with wide receivers Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards at full health will certainly help the Gamecocks’ chances. Tight end Hayden Hurst continues to lead the team in receptions and receiving yardage, though he’s yet to score a touchdown.
Both South Carolina quarterbacks, of course, will need time to find open receivers. Left tackle Mason Zandi will have his hands full, because defensive end Derek Barnett is a force off the edge.
However, things will be a little more manageable since Tennessee is still without a pair of standout defenders: cornerback Cam Sutton and linebacker Jaylen Reeves-Maybin.
Key matchup: South Carolina quarterbacks vs. Tennessee defense
Key Gamecock: Jake Bentley
Overall advantage: South Carolina
When South Carolina is on defense …
Fortunately, for Muschamp, there’s one less playmaker to account for when Tennessee has the ball.
Earlier this week, running back Alvin Kamara was ruled out with an injury. The junior from Norcross, Ga., has rushed for 313 yards, caught 22 passes for 260 yards and scored a total of six touchdowns over seven games.
South Carolina’s run defense, which ranks 10th in the SEC in yards allowed per game (211.1), will be put to the test by quarterback Joshua Dobbs, who’s one of the SEC’s best dual-threat quarterbacks. This season, he’s rushed for 293 yards and five scores.
Lined up next to him in the Tennessee backfield will be running back Jalen Hurd, a 6-foot-4, 240-pound bruiser who’s racked up 435 yards and two scores in 2016.
Through the air, Dobbs has completed 121 of 207 passes for 1,525 yards with 14 touchdowns and nine interceptions. He relies on a pair of a big-bodied wide receivers: Jauan Jennings (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) and Josh Malone (6-foot-3, 200 pounds).
Malone’s caught 22 passes for 402 yards and five touchdowns and Jennings has 20 receptions for 301 yards and three scores.
South Carolina cornerbacks Chris Lammons, JaMarcus King and Rashad Fenton will have their hands full, but it will be the Gamecocks’ front seven that will be put to the test.
Key matchup: South Carolina front seven vs. Tennessee’s run game
Key Gamecock: Taylor Stallworth
Overall advantage: Tennessee