There has been much talk about the shocking outcome the last time the Gamecocks took on the Vols. This storied annual matchup is one of many SEC East matchups for Carolina that will cease to happen on a yearly basis in 2024. Gamecock players and coaches said all the right things in their media availability this week. Spencer Rattler referred to Tennessee as another “nameless, faceless opponent” in his time with the media on Tuesday. Several other players, like Trey Knox, Pup Howard, Judge Collier, and Nick Gargiulo pointed out that they were not on the team for the Gamecocks 63-38 victory in Columbia last November. While revenge has been the buzzword with the fanbases, the game has little to do with last season.
The outside world will be rewatching highlights from the 2022 game and discussing alternate uniform options. Real college football junkies and Gamecock diehards should be watching the battles between the Tennessee defensive front and Carolina protection, Rattler versus the Vol secondary, and the Gamecocks’ defense of the Tennessee rushing attack.
Stay Away From Sacks
Much has been made of the improvement of the South Carolina offensive line as of late. Freshmen Tree Babalade and Trovon Baugh have done well stepping in early in their careers. But the Gamecocks still have a ways to go when it comes to performing consistently on the offensive line. Tight ends and running backs will also play a significant role in protection. Georgia’s defense gets a lot of attention, but the Volunteers lead the league in sacks, with 16. The Gamecocks have given up 17 sacks, which is last in the SEC and 125th in the country. Look for Tyler Baron and James Pearce Jr. to have an impact on Rattler.
Needless to say, this matchup looms large. Offensive coordinator, Dowell Loggains, used tight ends in the backfield to help protect Rattler against the pass rush in Athens. Look for a similar scheme on Saturday in Neyland Stadium. In order for South Carolina to have success on offense, it will need to continue to progress from a rushing standpoint. Part of neutralizing Tennessee’s pass rush will be running well. If Dakereon Joyner and, breakout player, Mario Anderson can blow by a few defenders who have pinned their ears back and rushed the passer on a running play, the Tennessee defense will have no choice but to back off.
Quick passes can be used to extend the run game and get around the front line of Tennessee as well. Lastly, Rattler had the two longest-running plays of the season for the Gamecocks on Saturday night. His ability to take off when there is open space in front of him can go a long way toward holding off a blitzing defender to keep a spy. This will give him more opportunities to throw the ball downfield when the Gamecocks and Vols play on Saturday.
Efficiency and Big Numbers
The brightest spot of the South Carolina team thus far is Rattler’s connection to Xavier Legette. The absence of star wideout Juice Wells seemingly spelled disaster for a team poised to pass the ball frequently. But Legette has answered the bell and dismantled secondaries left and right. Perhaps the greatest weakness of the Tennessee football team, on either side of the ball, is the secondary. Just like against Mississippi State, Rattler has an opportunity to find Legette, O’Mega Blake, Knox, and a healthy Ahmarean Brown, among others for big yardage. That only happens if the Gamecocks can give Rattler time. On one of his long touchdown catches last week, Legette recorded a speed of 22.3 mph, according to Reel Analytics. This is the fastest time in all of football so far this season. Legette is dominating from the receiver position and the accuracy of Rattler is helping him to do it.
Tennessee has the 52nd-ranked passing defense in the country. This is nowhere close to the 118th ranking the Gamecocks faced last week against Mississippi State. But Rattler and company had a decent day in Athens a couple of weeks ago against the number eight-ranked passing defense in Georgia. To round out the comparison, in spite of nine sacks and 18 hurries, Rattler was 30 of 39 for 353 yards against a North Carolina defense that ranks ahead of Tennessee, as well, at 27. With that being said, Rattler will have his opportunities again to exploit an inferior secondary. If the running game can manage 75 yards as a team, that should be enough balance to allow Rattler to be effective.
Loggains completely trusts Rattler. In his press conference on Wednesday, he commented on how he feels about Rattler, “It’s biblical…to whom much is given, much is required.” Rattler has been given immense responsibility and he is expected to live up to it. So far, he has not disappointed.
They’re Not Who You Think They Are
This is not last year’s Tennessee offense that had the ability to throw the ball all over the field. Hendon Hooker, Jalin Hyatt, and Cedric Tillman are in the NFL. While South Carolina now leads the SEC in passing yards per game, Tennessee leads the league in rushing yards per game. In a category where the Gamecocks find themselves at the bottom of the conference, Tennessee has been better than anyone so far. This unveils the greatest key to the game for Carolina: make Milton beat you with his arm.
Joe Milton was talked about all off-season due to the strength of his arm and the potential he brings to this Tennessee offense. However, last week against UTSA, he started off the game with an 81-yard touchdown run. Milton is a superb athlete, but he has not lit up the scoreboard with his arm thus far. In pressure situations against Florida in week three, Milton showed old habits of inaccuracy and poor decision-making. With that being said, Tennessee’s rushing attack is the motor of its offense to this point.
Defensive players will face a similar challenge for the second week in a row as they will need to sell out to stop the run and put the weight on the secondary to make stops in the passing game. TJ Sanders and Boogie Huntley have led the way thus far. They will need to continue making opportunistic plays and getting into opposing backfields. Jordan Strachan had his best game of the season at the edge position last week. He will look to continue coming on this week as well. Watch out for Jatius Geer as he continues to work back from an injury. Bryan Thomas Jr. is also a forgotten name who could make some plays this week.
Strength Masking as a Weakness?
The Gamecocks’ secondary has been a weakness in spots this season. They had a bad outing last week as star safeties Nick Emmanwori and DQ Smith struggled at times. Emmanwori got caught looking into the backfield to stop the run. Smith had a tough time sliding down to nickel and covering man-to-man in the slot. Those guys have the film to prove that they are better players than that. Even if they continue to struggle, putting the game on the arm of Milton will give the Gamecocks the best chance to win. Defensive backs lose one-on-one every week, but quarterbacks don’t always make them pay.
Defensive Coordinator Clayton White said in his press conference on Wednesday, “It’s all about coaching on the sidelines.” He mentioned that after giving up some big pass plays on Saturday night, the Gamecocks made adjustments and MSU didn’t have the same success when running the same plays again.
What To Expect
When the Gamecocks play the Vols this weekend, it comes down to stopping the run on defense and protecting the quarterback on offense. If the Gamecocks can accomplish those two things by any combination of methods on Saturday, they will be successful. Unfortunately, the matchup here will make those two tasks the most difficult of the day. South Carolina will need to scheme around weaknesses to make it work.
Rattler said in his media availability, “They’ll try to do a lot of stuff to slow us down…we’ve got to just not hurt ourselves…everything else will take care of itself.” The distractions are blocked out of the South Carolina meeting room. The question remains whether or not the Gamecocks can play without hurting themselves.
This series has come in threes since 2010 with the Gamecocks winning from 2010-12, the Vols 2013-15, Gamecocks 2016-18, and Vols again 2019-21. South Carolina is on a current one-game winning streak, so historically, it’s still their turn. Carolina will keep it close in the first half, but won’t do enough to remove the momentum from the Vols. After a big third quarter for Tennessee, the Gamecocks won’t be able to close the gap late.
Tennessee 35 South Carolina 24