COLUMBIA, S.C. — Tennessee’s season goals took a significant hit with Saturday night’s loss at South Carolina.
The Gamecocks (4-4, 2-4 SEC) scored a 24-21 victory over the Vols (5-3, 2-3), converting both of Josh Dobbs’ interceptions into touchdowns before the crowd of 78,696 at Williams-Brice Stadium.
Tennessee’s last-ditch effort in the game, a 58-yard field goal attempt from Aaron Medley, fell 10 yards short as time expired.
Florida (6-1, 4-1) holds a two-game lead over No. 18-ranked Tennessee in the SEC East Division race after the Gators beat Georgia 24-10 Saturday.
Florida has remaining SEC games at Arkansas (Nov. 5), vs. South Carolina (Nov. 12) and at LSU (Nov. 19).
Tennessee owns the tiebreaker over Florida by virtue of its 38-28 win over the Gators earlier this season, but the Vols now need to win out and hope Florida loses two of those final three league games.
Tennessee never led in Saturday night’s game, but it had its chances.
Jauan Jennings caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from Dobbs with 7:03 remaining to cut the lead to 24-21, capping a six-play, 77-yard drive.
Dobbs (12-26, 161 yards) was intercepted on the first play of the Vols next drive with 3:42 left, his deep pass downfield picked off at the South Carolina 46 by Jamarcus King.
Tennessee’s final possession started at its own 14 with 35 seconds left, and Dobbs drove the team to the Gamecocks’ 40-yard line before Medley was called on for the field goal attempt.
K.C. Crosby scored what proved to be the game-winning points when he reeled in a 35-yard touchdown pass from Jake Bentley (15-20, 167) with 9:54 left to put South Carolina up 24-14.
The touchdown occurred four plays after Dobbs fumbled the ball away at midfield — and two plays after safety Evan Berry left the game on account of injury, leaving true freshman Nigel Warrior in position to get exploited.
South Carolina held a 14-7 lead at the end of an ugly first half that saw the offenses combine for less than 200 yards with the defenses recording two sacks apiece.
The Gamecocks took a 17-7 lead on Elliott Fry’s 28-yard field goal with 1:49 left in the the third quater, but Evan Berry returned the ensuing kick 100 yards to cut the lead to 17-14.
Six things learned
• Butch Jones is much more liberal with his use of defensive backs than receivers, even though their size skill sets are similar. As depleted as the secondary was, missing two starters, Jones used Evan Berry on offense. Meanwhile, none of the receivers have seen action in the secondary even though Tyler Byrd and Jauan Smith have the talents to do so.
• A healthy UT offensive line isn’t necessarily a good one. Even with all of the starters back from injury, the Vols struggled to get much of a push in the run game.
• The bye week didn’t improve Dobbs’ chemistry with his receivers. The Vols continue to drop passes and didn’t appear in sync in the pass game.
• Evan Berry’s 100-yard kick return is evidence he remains one of the most dangerous weapons in college football, even with all the ankle injuries he has suffered through.
• Derek Barnett might be the most unstoppable defensive end in college football. Barnett had three sacks, and now has 29 in his career.
• The Vols have issues at defensive tackle. Shy Tuttle’s first career start ended with 4:08 left in the third quarter when he limped off the field. Tennessee already lost starter Danny O’Brien (dismissed) and Kahlil Mckenzie (torn pectoral muscle) for the season.
• Dobbs’ interception with 3:42 left gave the Gamecocks a chance to run time off the clock and leave Tennessee with too little time on the final drive.
• Tennessee needs to re-evaluate its offensive identity after managing just 297 total yards.
• Can the Tennessee offensive line get up to speed enough for the Vols to finish the season strong?
• Tennessee committed three turnovers and forced none.
What it means
• Tennessee’s hopes for returning to the SEC Championship Game are slim.