Now that Tennessee has gotten through the most difficult part of its schedule, the lighter half of the season begins on Saturday. This weekend, the No. 18 Volunteers travel to Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia to face off against the South Carolina Gamecocks.
The Vols were pretty beat up following back-to-back losses to Alabama and Texas A&M. Fortunately, Tennessee is coming off of a bye week that was vital for healing up and recovering. Starting linebacker Darrin Kirkland Jr. — among several other players who were injured — has returned to practice this week following an injury in week three and will play in Saturday’s game. On the other hand, Alvin Kamara will be joining Cam Sutton and the other injured players on the sideline for a few weeks.
Will Muschamp believes he’s found a difference maker in true freshman quarterback Jake Bentley, who will try to take a major step forward in his second career start. The first-year Gamecocks’ coach will attempt to carry over the spotless success he had against Tennessee from his days coaching at Florida.
Josh Dobbs must have success running the ball for the Vols’ offense to be effective. His breakout performance was a key reason why Tennessee left Columbia with a win two years ago. This year, the Vols need Dobbs to get back to his dual-threat capabilities down the stretch and take over games. Defensive coordinator Bob Shoop needs Derek Barnett and the rest of Tennessee’s front seven to apply pressure on Bentley. If they can, it will likely rattle the freshman quarterback, making it much more difficult on the South Carolina offense.
For South Carolina, the Gamecocks need to force turnovers from the Vols’ offense. South Carolina’s defense is currently fifth in the league with 14 takeaways, and Tennessee has been prone to giving the ball away this season. It’s up to the Gamecocks defense to lock down and force the Vols to make mistakes.
On offense, to say that South Carolina has struggled would be an understatement. The Gamecocks have been atrocious on offense for most of the season. However, Bentley has shown that he has a big arm and has proven that the Gamecocks can complete a few big plays behind his quarterbacking play. When asked about Bentley, Tennessee head coach Butch Jones was complimentary.
“I thought he did a very, very good job. He was animated. He has great intensity and can throw the football. I thought he managed the offense very well. He took care of the football,” said Jones.
“He looked like a mature individual. He looked like a mature competitor that’s been there. You know his pedigree and his upbringing and all that, and I was very impressed with the way he handled the game.”
For South Carolina to have a chance at upsetting the Vols, Bentley — and the offense as a whole — must have a solid game.
Regardless of each team’s record, the previous four games between the two have been nerve-racking, one-possession affairs. That won’t happen Saturday. The Vols have too many weapons and are fresh off of a much-needed bye. They’ll finally put together a total performance for the first time this season and defeat the Gamecocks, 35-17.
Edited by Adam Milliken
Featured image by Donald Page, courtesy of Tennessee Athletics