KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — After a bye week to get rested and recharged, Tennessee returns a number of key contributors just in time for its stretch run toward a potential division title.
The No. 18 Volunteers must keep pace with Florida, needing the No. 14 Gators to lose at least once in their final four conference games.
Tennessee plays at South Carolina (7:15 p.m., ESPN2).
Not that anyone cares to remember, but I nailed all five predictions for the Tennessee-Alabama game.
Here are five guesses for the Vols showdown against the Gamecocks.
1. Can Tennessee solve its rush defense woes?
UT’s depleted defense has been gashed on the ground this year, especially over the last three weeks of the season. The Volunteers allowed an eye-popping 762 yards to Texas A&M and Alabama, but fortunately for them, the Gamecocks have displayed a complete and utter inability to run the football. South Carolina ranks last in the SEC — and No. 122 nationally — averaging just 3.28 yards per carry.
If the Vols can’t stop the run Saturday, they won’t solve their issues in 2016.
2. Over/Under 1.5 turnovers for Tennessee
Why go against the numbers?
Sure, giveaways — especially fumbles — are a product of randomness and luck. But the fortune says the Volunteers can’t hold onto the football.
Tennessee’s 17 turnovers rank No. 125 nationally. South Carolina has 14 takeaways on the season.
I bet the Gamecocks added to that number.
3. Will Josh Dobbs set a career-high in touchdown passes?
Dobbs has 14 passing touchdowns in seven games this season, one shy from his career-high set in 2015. The senior quarterback has tossed 4 scores in two games against South Carolina, but the Gamecocks actually tout a stout secondary in 2016.
Will Muschamp and Travaris Robinson are renowned defensive back coaches, and their early tutelage has already paid dividends this season, as the Gamecocks rank second in the SEC in pass defense (just 183.6 yards per game). They’ve picked off eight passes, too — tied for third in the conference with Alabama and Georgia.
4. Who finishes with more rushing yards: Jalen Hurd or John Kelly?
With no Alvin Kamara, Tennessee will lean on its veteran tailback, giving Hurd a chance to shoulder the load and have a breakout performance against an iffy rush defense.
Earlier this week, Butch Jones called Hurd “one of the best backs in the country.”
That may be true, but Hurd has had a tough junior season, averaging just 3.8 yards per carry running behind a leaky offensive line.
South Carolina ranks No. 103 in rush defense though, so Saturday could be a prime opportunity for both Hurd and Kelly, who looked great in spurts against Texas A&M, to go off.
5. Will Derek Barnett continue his hot-streak?
Tennessee’s best player has feasted on opposing offensive tackles over the last month, tallying 6 tackles, 8.5 tackles for loss, 2 forced fumbles and an interception.
The junior pass rusher has 4 career-sacks against South Carolina, too.
I expect another standout performance Saturday night.