South Carolina-Tennessee Preview
Things are looking up again for South Carolina.
The No. 11 Gamecocks are back in the Southeastern Conference race thanks to a loss by Georgia. Star defensive lineman Jadeveon Clowney is back in coach Steve Spurrier's good graces. And the offense is gaining yards at a record pace.
Still, South Carolina can't get complacent. Spurrier said the Gamecocks have been lucky at times, and luck runs out.
"There's still a lot of room for improvement," Spurrier said. "We had some good, gracious breaks last week and the week before. I don't think the gracious breaks are going to keep coming our way all the time."
South Carolina (5-1, 3-1) will likely have to beat Tennessee on Saturday and win the rest of its league games, including matchups with No. 22 Florida and upstart 14th-ranked Missouri, to win the SEC East. The Gamecocks will need help with another loss by No. 15 Georgia, which is a much bigger possibility with all of the Bulldogs' injuries.
But things are looking much better for South Carolina than they did last month after the Gamecocks opened SEC play with a loss to Georgia. Sophomore tailback Mike Davis is the 10th-leading rusher in the country at almost 124 yards a game, while Connor Shaw is seventh in the nation in pass efficiency with 10 touchdowns and no interceptions.
Spurrier is even handing out praise to his senior signal-caller, which can be hard to come by from the 1966 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback.
"He's so much better as a passer. Anytime a quarterback can run like he can, the general thinking is he must not be a great passer because he can run so well," Spurrier said. "But his ball has gotten better this year and that's because his foot is 100 percent healthy and he's just played a lot more."
South Carolina is averaging 486 yards a game. Spurrier hasn't had a team average better than 400 yards in his previous eight seasons at South Carolina, and only three of his teams at Florida gained more yards per game.
Tennessee dominated the series with South Carolina when the Gamecocks first entered the program, once winning 12 straight games. But the Vols have lost three consecutive matchups, last winning in 2009 in Lane Kiffin's only season. That also marked Tennessee's last victory over a Top 25 team, with the school dropping 19 such games since.
Volunteers coach Butch Jones said South Carolina is as good as any team Tennessee has faced this year.
"I think their results speak for themselves. I think they're an extremely complete football team when you look at physicality, when you look at size, when you look at speed," Jones said. "They're coming in here with a lot of momentum, a lot of confidence."
Part of that confidence comes from a defense that is back on track. Arkansas ran just 37 plays on offense in last week's 52-7 South Carolina win. And with all the hand-wringing over Clowney and his teammates, the unit's statistics aren't bad. The Gamecocks are allowing just over 345 yards a game, trailing only Florida and Alabama in the SEC.
"They took too much of the blame," Shaw said of the defense. "I can remember this offense when I first took over we were struggling to find our identity and our defense had our back. It's kind of flipped."
Clowney was back on the field against Arkansas after missing a game against Kentucky with a strained muscle near his ribcage. Spurrier wasn't asked a single question about the defensive lineman Tuesday after a week where his conditioning and commitment dominated coverage.
Spurrier brought up the defense himself when asked whether he worried last week's big win would get his team overconfident, pointing out how they only trail the SEC's elite defenses.
"Our defense has come a long way. Nobody needs to get upset that our total defense is third in the conference," Spurrier said. "We haven't given up a ton of yards. Just hadn't played that fourth quarter well for about two or three weeks in a row."
Lack of defense has had much to do with Tennessee's poor season. The Vols (3-3, 0-2) are allowing 35.7 points and 471.3 yards per game, both near the bottom of the FBS.
They've had a week off to think about a heartbreaking 34-31 overtime loss to then-No. 6 Georgia on Oct. 5. The Bulldogs tied it with five seconds to play in the fourth quarter on a 2-yard scoring pass before winning in OT on a 42-yard field goal.
On the possession before the winning kick, Tennessee's Alton "Pig" Howard fumbled as he reached the ball toward the goal line on a play from the Georgia 7, and it was ruled a turnover and a touchback.
"It's another step, another building block," Jones said. "We need to learn how to win these football games. That's a part of the process of learning how to win, but you can see it. I can see it evolving. I can see it every day."
The Vols, who will be playing a ranked team for the fourth time in five games, lost the last meeting with South Carolina 38-35 on the road Oct. 27.