KNOXVILLE, Tennessee — When South Carolina faces Tennessee on Saturday, they’ll be coming off their most complete game of the season.
So will Tennessee.
That adds some intrigue to the game between the Vols (3-3, 0-2 SEC) and 11th-ranked Gamecocks (5-1, 3-1) at Neyland Stadium (TV: ESPN, noon).
I asked Ryan Wood of the Charleston (S.C.) Post and Courier to help me out with a Q&A about the Gamecocks. Ryan and I overlapped on the Auburn beat for a bit in 2011 before we both moved to the SEC East. You can read his blog on South Carolina here and follow him on Twitter @rwood_SC.
Want to read my responses to his questions? They’re right here.
1. Even Tennessee players said they noticed a dramatic difference in South Carolina’s defense in the Arkansas game. What clicked?
South Carolina finally showed up for the fourth quarter. Truth is, the Gamecocks defense has been pretty good for stretches in every game this season, but they allowed 51 combined fourth-quarter points against Vanderbilt, Central Florida and Kentucky. That’s more than any other SEC team allowed in the season’s first six weeks – total.
Also, it must be said, playing Arkansas’ offense was a major benefit. When the opposing quarterback completes 4-of-12 passes for 30 yards, you’re going to look like one of the better defenses in the nation. That should bode well for USC this week. Statistically, Tennessee’s offense isn’t doing much better.
2. Did the win over Arkansas return Carolina’s expectations to where they were in August – competing to win the SEC East and, if things fall into place, a spot in the national title picture?
I don’t know about the national title – there are eight undefeated and two one-loss teams ranked higher in the AP poll – but certainly South Carolina returned to the middle of the divisional race. This after I thought it had no chance following the Georgia loss in Week 2.
At Arkansas, USC had its largest blowout against a fellow SEC opponent not named Kentucky, so there was a ton of confidence gained. But it was a perfect Saturday for the Gamecocks, beyond what happened in Fayetteville. Florida lost to LSU. Georgia lost to Missouri. Missouri lost starting quarterback James Franklin. Everything that needed to happen for USC to climb back into the race happened. Now, USC needs Georgia to lose one more game – not out of the question when the Bulldogs resemble the walking dead – and it will control its own destiny.
3. What is South Carolina’s biggest vulnerability — or question that the team hasn’t sufficiently answered at midseason?
I know it’s cliché, but with such a young team – especially on defense – this week is all about how USC handles success. It proved last week it can deal with controversy and adversity, wasting Arkansas after a week of Jadeveon Clowney headlines. That’s no longer an issue. Now, can USC avoid overlooking a struggling Tennessee team with what could be a huge game at Missouri looming the next week? I’m really not sure.
On the field, USC’s biggest problem matches Tennessee’s weakness. The Gamecocks’ pass defense ranks fourth in the SEC, but that’s pretty misleading after giving up only 30 passing yards last week. There have been serious breakdowns in the secondary, especially late in games. Of course, Tennessee has serious quarterback problems and ranks second-to-last – ahead of only Arkansas – in passing offense, so I doubt the Vols take advantage.
4. You’re relatively new to the South Carolina beat. Name one thing you learned about the team, the university, the city that you didn’t know before.
The spiders down here are the last, living dinosaurs. Seriously. They’re Satan’s pets. I was completely unprepared. But, I suppose you meant something more than my reservations about those horrid, eight-legged creatures.
I am struck at how much Columbia feels like a college town, despite its relative size. As you know, I arrived from Auburn, Ala., a town that literally wouldn’t exist without its university. Columbia isn’t to that degree. It has its business district, a heavy bank influence. But the entire city really is about its university, and it rallies around its football team. I’m not sure it’s always been that way in the past, but excitement around this program has been at an all-time high the past few seasons. I think the culture has changed around here, and Steve Spurrier is the biggest reason.
5. Who will win on Saturday and give a formula for a Tennessee upset.
If what I saw last week in Fayetteville was an aberration, perhaps it could be an interesting game Saturday. I’ll go out on a limb and say it wasn’t, and South Carolina wins by at least a couple touchdowns. This seems to be a game Tennessee is building up to. I think the Vols get there eventually. Butch Jones seems to be the right coach for the job. But they’re not ready yet.
I think the formula Saturday is very similar to what the Vols did against Georgia. If Tennessee can stay in the game early, preventing USC from distancing itself too much, Neyland Stadium will come alive in the second half. If the Vols can get something going with their passing game, maybe pick up a couple unconventional touchdowns, and be competitive entering the fourth quarter, they will have a chance at home. Of course, that’s a lot of “ifs.”