Another road game is on the slate for South Carolina this weekend as they travel to Knoxville to continue their recent winning ways over the Tennessee Volunteers.
This is something you wouldn't have said in the 1990's when Tennessee was one of the top programs in college football. However, recent coaching changes have caused the Volunteers to take a step back in the SEC's pecking order and allowed other teams to enter into the mix.
One of those teams is the South Carolina Gamecocks.
South Carolina has been able to win four of the last five meetings between the Gamecocks and Volunteers and it's due in large part to the consistency the football program has had the last several years under Steve Spurrier. Recruiting has improved the talent level and the coaching staff has evolved under Spurrier to help get the best out of the group of players they've brought to campus in recent years.
The Gamecocks haven't faired so well in Knoxville in this series as they've only won two of 16 matchups but both of those wins have come under Steve Spurrier. Spurrier is 14-8 all-time against Knoxville but Tennessee is the home state where the Head Ball Coach grew up. He's always a little extra motivated to head to his home state and you know Spurrier will be fired up for this weekend's game.
This game has been a close one, for the most part, in recent years. Since 2002, the last 11 meetings between these two teams have been within a touchdown in the fourth quarter seven times and has gone to overtime twice. If that's any indication, Saturday's game could be another close battle between South Carolina and Tennessee.
The Volunteers are hoping for their first win over a ranked team since 2009 when they defeated the then-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks 31-13. If they are able to do it, they'll need a big game from South Carolina product Justin Worley at quarterback. He's started five games out of six this season but is only completing 55.8-percent of his passes and has thrown six interceptions this season. He's got some playmakers in versatile wide receiver Pig Howard, running back Rajion Neal and true freshman Marquez North. He's got a future first-rounder in left tackle Antonio Richardson. Richardson will face off against Clowney, where he did incredibly well against him in last year's game.
The defense is one of the best in the country in forcing turnovers with 15 so far this season, which is the best in the SEC. They've got 11 interceptions this season, which is second in the SEC, so they've got a propensity for making a big play. Those turnovers are key as the unit is giving up 416.5 yards per game. They do have a big time linebacker in A.J. Johnson. Johnson is leading the team in tackles with 47 total tackles this season with 4.5 tackles for loss this season. South Carolina native Corey Miller is leading the team in sacks with 2.0 this season and Brian Randolph leads the team in interceptions with three.
This is a team that is trying to be rebuilt under new coach Butch Jones, but it's a process that won't be fixed overnight. South Carolina is better on paper than the Volunteers but they gave Georgia all they could handle two weeks ago and will certainly have the home crowd behind them hoping for Butch Jones biggest win as head coach.
With that said, let's take a look at this week's This, That and The Other.
This game features a matchup of last season's battle between Antonio Richardson and Jadeveon Clowney. Last year, you could say that Richardson got the best of Clowney in his efforts to protect Tyler Bray. It was mainly one-on-one between these two all game long and Richardson more than held his own against the future NFL draft pick. The Volunteers quarterback didn't see much of Jadeveon Clowney until late in the fourth quarter when Clowney blew past Richardson to sack Bray and force a fumble that ended the Tennessee comeback. It was one of those moments that built the legend of Clowney but certainly put Richardson on the map.
This year, he'll hope to do the same but will face a renewed Jadeveon Clowney, who showcased a vocal presence last week against Arkansas that we haven't seen all season. Knowing that he'll be getting a lot of one-on-one matchups this weekend, Clowney will certainly be salivating at the opportunity. It has been a strange season for Clowney with his limited numbers, nagging injuries and questions about his commitment level being all the rage in college football. However, the season is only halfway over and a lot can happen between now and then.
It all starts this weekend. This matchup between these two great players will be one of the highlights to watch Saturday afternoon and whoever wins the day between these two will likely give their team the edge they need to push towards victory.
That Connor Shaw hasn't thrown an interception this season is tantamount to his growth in his career. It's not like he's been turnover prone since being a Gamecock but there has always been that air of a careless mistake here and there, whether it's staying in the pocket too long or staring down his receiver, but Shaw has turned into a fantastic quarterback. He has yet to throw an interception this season and continues to use his legs in the appropriate manner. There's not much you can complain about with Connor Shaw and that consistency will be needed Saturday.
As mentioned earlier, Tennessee is one of the top teams in the country in interceptions. With those ball hawks on defense for the Volunteers, Shaw will need to be as smart and efficient as ever. This means being able to make the right decision and knowing when it's time to throw the ball away. Staying on the field is crucial to the Gamecocks success. Look what happened last week against Arkansas. They dominated the line of scrimmage and came away with their biggest win on the road in SEC play.
Being able to run the ball and not force any mistakes has been a big part of Shaw's success this season and he'll need to do the same on Saturday if he hopes to keep the Gamecocks in the hunt for the SEC East title.
The other thing is how the Gamecocks respond to last week's game will be something to keep an eye on this Saturday. It's obvious that South Carolina steamrolled Arkansas. However, we know there have been struggles on special teams and defense this season for the Gamecocks and Spurrier was one to say all week that he knows this team isn't as good as they played this past Saturday. Maybe it's his way of trying to temper the expectations or maybe he was telling the truth.
Tennessee will have a hostile environment this weekend. This stadium can hold over 100,000 people and Butch Jones seems to have the fanbase fired up. It likely won't be the Tennessee crowd of the 1990's that South Carolina faced but they'll be loud and ready to take down the Gamecocks. Most of these Tennessee fans likely think they are still better than the Gamecocks. They don't think South Carolina belongs in the upper echelon of the SEC and would love nothing more than to beat Steve Spurrier in front of the home crowd.
The Gamecocks need to treat this like a business trip. They need to be prepared to play and not let any distractions take away the goals that they have at hand. I think that's a message that Spurrier conveyed this week and something we'll see the Gamecocks be able to do this weekend.
It's crazy to think where these two programs have gone in the last five years. Seeing South Carolina win three straight against Tennessee, win four out of five games, and basically leapfrogging the Volunteers is something a lot of fans never thought would happen.
But it has.
This weekend will be another opportunity for South Carolina to make their mark on the SEC. Defeating Tennessee is still an accomplishment. It's still a big deal even though they aren't the powerhouse they once were. Adding another win against the Volunteers will be a big deal and keep South Carolina in the momentum they've gained last week against the Razorbacks. They'll need it too if they hope to beat Missouri next week and continue their quest towards an SEC East title.
What will happen? I'd like to think we would see another solid offensive performance and just enough defense to keep Tennessee at their heels. Mike Davis and Connor Shaw will play like they have all season long and push this offense forward on a defense that has given up some yardage this season. The key talking point will be the defense. How will they perform against a top back like Rajion Neal? That's the question that will be asked and the answer will determine the outcome.
Something tells me this will be the weekend we see Jadeveon Clowney break out of his shell and make quite an impact.
And if that happens, I think South Carolina comes home victorious.
Be sure to tune in Saturday at high noon as South Carolina faces off against Tennessee on ESPN. It'll be another fun-filled SEC matchup that's for sure.