KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee needs some help to reach the SEC championship game for the first time since 2007, but the No. 18 Volunteers won’t get to Atlanta if they overlook lowly South Carolina on Saturday.
While Tennessee trails Florida in the East Division standings, the schedule is in the Volunteers’ favor, as the Gators play three of their next four conference games away from home (vs. Georgia in Jacksonville, at Arkansas and at LSU).
However, coach Butch Jones isn’t interested in the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party or any other upcoming SEC games, aiming to keep his team mentally sharp heading into a potential championship run.
“Our guys understand the stakes,” Jones said.
“They understand the importance and magnitude of each game. … We’re not paying any attention at all (to Georgia-Florida). All of our focus has to be on a very, very good South Carolina football team.
“We’re going to play our best game. We have not played our best football game yet. We have not played a complete football game yet in terms of all three units. This is going to be a complementary football game. All of our focus is on South Carolina.”
Jones was quick to note that the Gamecocks have given the Vols fits over the last four seasons. Tennessee has won three in a row over USC — by a combined 8 total points.
Last season, the Vols coughed up a 17-point lead against the Gamecocks, needing a late Malik Foreman forced fumble in the red zone to survive at home.
Despite being 14-point favorites on Saturday, Tennessee expects a similar fight again.
“This game has always come down to the wire. Both teams are highly competitive,” junior receiver Josh Malone said.
“This is a good test for us going to Columbia and playing South Carolina. They are solid on defense and are a solid opponent that is well-coached and physical.”
The Gamecocks sport the nation’s No. 127 ranked offense, but Jones spoke as if first-year coach Will Muschamp’s team was the Dallas Cowboys of the early 1990s.
He effusively praised their defense, noting South Carolina’s red-zone efficiency, and said the Cocks’ freshmen quarterbacks, Jake Bentley and Brandon McElwain, “really challenges you schematically.”
Still, Saturday is an opportunity for Tennessee to get back on track as it kickstarts a stretch run toward Atlanta.
The Volunteers were able to use their bye to recharge, and they expect a number of key contributors to return to action on Saturday. They also got “a head start” on scouting South Carolina last week, with junior tight end Ethan Wolf saying, “The way the games have gone in the past … whether they’re ranked higher than us, or we’re ranked higher than them, it really doesn’t matter — especially because there’s been proof over the last three years.
“This is definitely a game that we need to come out and play our best football from the first snap to the last and take care of business.”