South Carolina football: 5 keys to upsetting Tennessee in Week 1
Now is the time to officially turn the page on the dismal and forgettable 2019 season, which included a 4-8 record and more questions about contracts, buyouts and administrator’s opinions than the on-field product.
The coaching staff is revamped, there’s a new quarterback and a conference-only schedule that has left many to peg South Carolina at middle of the pack, at best, in the SEC East. (Media picked the Gamecocks to finish 5th in the East.)
It all gets started Saturday against Tennessee, which has a much more positive outlook on this season and momentum coming off a late-season surge and bowl win. The Vols also won last year’s meeting 41-21, which snapped a 3-game winning streak for South Carolina. (Media picked the Vols to finish 3rd in the East.)
There are a lot of familiarities in this game.
Will Friend enters his 3rd season as the Vols’ offensive line coach. Before he came to Tennessee, Friend was offensive coordinator and offensive line coach at Colorado State under then-head coach Mike Bobo, who is the new South Carolina offensive coordinator. They previously worked at Georgia. Also, South Carolina starting QB Collin Hill played for both of them at CSU. There are plenty of other cross-overs, including Tracy Rocker, whom South Carolina hired as a defensive line coach after he served in the same position the past 2 seasons at Tennessee.
So how will South Carolina upset Tennessee, which is about a 3.5-point favorite in the game set for 7:30 p.m. on Saturday in Williams-Brice Stadium on the SEC Network?
Let’s dive in.
1. Muschamp’s success against Tennessee
Coach Will Muschamp has his best coaching mark against Tennessee. He’s 7-1 against the Vols. He was 4-0 as the head coach at Florida and is 3-1 with the Gamecocks. The 7 wins are the most Muschamp has against any opponent.
Last year, Muschamp before the game discussed how close the series has been since he’s been in the Garnet and Black, and to prepare for more of the same.
“You’ve got to put yourself in the moment, three or four minutes left in the game, critical third down, we got to stay on the field offensively, we’ve got to get off the field on defense,” he said. “You play the game in your mind, mentally, put yourself in those situations.”
He’s typically made the right calls at the right time.
2. A feature back emerges
The odds are it’ll be Kevin Harris or Deshaun Fenwick, however, a freshman could emerge as the key back in this game. MarShawn Lloyd’s ACL injury placed a lot of pressure on this position to produce even without him.
Interestingly, since Muschamp has been at South Carolina, the 3 wins over Tennessee have all seen the Gamecocks run the ball at least 40 times for an average of 192 yards per game, whereas last year, they ran it just 30 times for 78 yards.
Rico Dowdle in 2018 had 140 yards on 14 carries with a TD against the Vols. In 2017, A.J. Turner had 14 carries for 86 yards and a TD. And in 2016, Dowdle had another big game against the Vols, with 27 carries for 127 yards and a TD.
The Gamecocks need a productive presence at running back to come out on top.
3. Disrupting Jarrett Guarantano
The veteran Tennessee QB has played pretty well overall against the Gamecocks, even though his record is 1-2. He hasn’t thrown an interception and has completed 65% of his passes, avering 189 passing yards per game. He was sacked on 4th down to clinch the 2018 game.
His worst game may have been in 2017. South Carolina had a goal-line stand in which Guarantano threw 3 consecutive incompletions to end the game.
What history tells us is the South Carolina defense needs to disrupt him, either through a pass rush, or closing windows in the secondary. The Vols’ receivers had the edge last year, but the tables have turned this year. DBs Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu need to live up to the offseason hype and deliver a big play or two.
4. Bobo can’t ‘chase ghosts’
Obviously, these coaching staffs know each other very well, and that includes Bobo working on the same staff at Georgia with Pruitt. Bobo said recently that he can’t over-think the play-calling based on Pruitt’s history.
Their lone previous meeting on opposite sidelines came in 2017, when Bobo was the head coach at Colorado State and Pruitt was the defensive coordinator at Alabama. Alabama won 41-23 in Tuscaloosa, as Bobo’s offense rang up 391 total yards with 22 first downs. The Rams trailed 17-0 after the opening quarter and had 2 interceptions in the game.
“There is going to be things they look at that we did during that time together and what we did at Colorado State,” Bobo said, per The Big Spur. “There are things I’m going to look at Jeremy did at Georgia, Alabama, and now he’s doing at Tennessee. At the same time, you have to be careful that you don’t chase too many ghosts. You can’t let those ghosts dictate what you’re going to do offensively. You want to try to dictate what the defense what you’re trying to do. There are going to be some things he’s going to do that we’re going to have to make some adjustments and talk through on the sideline and hopefully vice versa.”
Bobo has said many times that he can deploy many different offenses depending on his personnel, the defense and the game situation. This has all the makings of a close game that will reveal plenty of his tendencies.
5. Stop the run
This a dual key with the emergence of South Carolina’s 5-star defensive linemen in Jordan Burch and Zacch Pickens. Both are listed as backups Saturday, but that means little beyond the opening snap.
In Tennessee’s 6-game winning streak to close the 2019 season, the Vols were held under 100 yards rushing only once (Kentucky). And in fact, in 4 of the 5 losses last season for the Vols, they also were held under 100 yards rushing.
This would mean that the likes of Burch and Pickens, and others, are controlling the line of scrimmage, stopping breakout candidate Eric Gray, and putting pressure on Guarantano to win the game.