It’s Football Time in Tennessee: Vols vs. South Carolina Gamecocks (9/30/23)
Recently: Tennessee (#21/19, 3-1, 0-1) took down an overmatched UTSA team 45-14 in Knoxville last Saturday. For much of the game, UT looked like the offensive juggernaut Vols fans have become accustomed to over the last couple of seasons. We won’t talk about that 3rd quarter.
Meanwhile South Carolina (NR, 2-2, 1-1) beat Mississippi State 37-30 in Columbia. The Cocks held MSU to just 32 yards rushing in the game, a fact USC fans have been pretty vocal about this week. They’ve been less vocal about the 487 passing yards they gave up.
Previously on Vols vs. Cocks: Tennessee suffered a disastrous loss to South Carolina last year, ending the Vols’ playoff hopes and Hendon Hooker’s college career in one fell swoop. It was shocking to all the folks on Rocky Top; if we woke up with our heads sown to the carpet, we wouldn't be more surprised than we were on that November night. But while most of us were stunned by the outcome, it shouldn’t have been surprising considering the bizarre nature of this series. In 1992, a loss at USC all but sealed the fate of Johnny Majors as UT’s coach. That was followed by a 12-game Vols win streak, including Tee Martin setting a NCAA record for consecutive completions in 1998. There’s the original impromptu Dark Mode game in 2009. How about the 2016 loss in Williams-Brice that knocked UT out of SEC East contention. That one came on the heels of three consecutive games where Tennessee won on a field goal in each game's final period, giving us the most ridiculous fact in UT/USC lore: Butch Jones is undefeated against Steve Spurrier.
Overall Tennessee is 28-11-2 against South Carolina, 18-3 in Knoxville.
FIVE FACTOR PREVIEW
Tennessee Offense vs. South Carolina Defense
Looking at these numbers, I like the trend of USC giving up a lot of scoring opportunities. However, one strength of the Cocks' defense has been limiting opponents' points per opportunity. The Vols' points per opportunity has dipped week over week after a blistering 6 PPO in week 1 against Virginia. UT has to finish drives in the end zone to win this one Saturday.
Tennessee Defense vs. South Carolina Offense
South Carolina's field-goalish PPO aligns nicely with the similar number allowed by Tennessee's defense. The 32% success rate Tennessee has allowed so far this year is nice too. The Vols defense should be aiming to keep Spencer Rattler playing off-schedule and behind the chains, and keep creating havoc plays.
Gamecocks Top Offensive Concepts
According to secstatcat.com, these are the top offensive run and pass concepts South Carolina has run this season:
Whether by design or by accident, the Gamecocks have run inside zone and outside zone the exact same number of times for the exact same number of yards.
Inside Zone Read
Two hallmarks of this play are the TE crossing the formation to seal the backside and the QB reading the end to decide whether to give or keep. This play accounts for 12% of USC's play calls and 7% of their total yards.
At an identical 12% of play calls and 7% of total yards, outside zone actually has a higher success rate for the Gamecock offense. As with most outside zone plays, the danger is the cutback lane on the play's backside. Notice how there's no read by the QB on this version. Instead, Rattler turns to bootleg out, the same action he'll use on the Cocks' favorite pass call, Flood.
South Carolina's third most popular run concept is a much smaller part of the offense (3% of play calls, 3% of total yards), but Inside Power can be dangerously tricky when incorporated with the wildcat package, as seen above. MSU actually hits the RB in the backfield--finishing tackles will be imperative in this game.
Flood, particularly the Sail concept as illustrated above, accounts for 10% of all plays and 7% of all yards for South Carolina. Also look out for the bootleg action into Flood as mentioned above.
Typically All Verts is thought of as a downfield shot play, but here's an example of USC using the concept in the red zone against Mississippi State. All Verts accounts for just 4% of all play calls but 8% of the Gamecocks total yards this season.
Dagger features an inside receiver running a vertical route and an outside receiver running a deep (16-18 yards) dig. Because the two primary routes in this concept are deep, the slow-developing nature of this play gives an excellent opportunity for Tennessee--3rd nationally in sacks with 16--to get to Rattler (USC gives up 4+ sacks/game, 5th-most nationally).
Prediction: There is a ton at stake in this contest. Josh Heupel and Shane Beamer will be linked in conversation until one of them moves on or fizzles out. Both coaches want to recruit the kind of athlete that Clemson has landed over the last decade-plus, and the recent downward trend of the Tigers has opened the door for just that. Heupel has had the stronger overall trajectory so far, but last year's loss to the Cocks was a stain on all that the Vols' coach has accomplished at UT in his first two years. A win Saturday night would help CJH assert his place--and the Tennessee program's current place--ahead of what Beamer is trying to build at USC.
All of us, ALL of us have had this one circled since last year's debacle in Columbia. ESPN and the SEC schedule gods gave us the exact set up we wanted with this game kicking off at night. The crowd will be in a frenzy on Saturday night, and all that is left is for the team to produce. The Vols sit at around 11.5-point favorites, and statistically that's not unreasonable. The wild card is that both teams have a QB capable of looking like a Heisman candidate on one drive while making you wonder how they ever earned a scholarship on the next. Let's get First Half Joe from last week and let the Neyland at Night crowd carry the fight, and Tennessee wins in the neighborhood of 35-23.
I just... I've never understood... how do you wake up everyday feeling good about this as your mascot?