It's a common theme for sportswriters and bloggers to talk about teams coming into a game going in the opposite direction, because it's often glaringly obvious. It's a little bit different to see a game where the two teams come in both getting either better or worse -- but today's game between South Carolina and Tennessee is just that.
Tennessee's resurgence has been pretty well-documented. After heartbreaking losses to Florida and Arkansas, the Volunteers beat Georgia, almost won at Alabama and then hammered Kentucky in Lexington. Tennessee isn't going to make good on all the "dark-horse SEC East winner" projections that we saw in the preseason, but an 8-4 season now seems the most likely outcome for the Vols. After this week's game against the Gamecocks, Tennessee faces North Texas, Missouri and Vanderbilt. Winning six of the last seven, the defeat in Tuscaloosa as the only loss, is not a bad way to end a season.
South Carolina, surprisingly, is also playing better after Steve Spurrier's resignation. Perhaps it's the fact that a source of stress has been removed from the team, or maybe it's just that they needed a different voice in the locker room. Vanderbilt being one of the opponents also didn't hurt. But the Gamecocks beat the Commodores and narrowly lost to a Texas A&M that, playing in College Station, probably should have blown them out of the water. That's probably not enough to revive the Gamecocks' bowl hopes, though a win in this game could give them just enough straws to grasp.
1Expect a close one? Over the last 15 years or so, South Carolina-Tennessee has evolved into one of those rivalries where despite how good the respective teams are, it's almost always going to be uncomfortably close. Three of the last twelve games have been decided in overtime. (For the record, Tennessee has won all three.) Only five of the last fifteen games have been decided by more than a single possession, and the last three have been determined by a field goal or less. The better team generally wins this game -- though not always -- but only after getting a scare.
2Defense optional. If you're looking for a slobber-knocking football game with tough defenses forcing the opposing offense to scrape for every yard -- might we suggest waiting until LSU visits Alabama in prime time? Neither the Gamecocks nor the Vols has made defense their calling card this year. Tennessee is giving up almost 5.7 yards a play more than 403 yards a game, on average. But that seems almost miserly lined up against South Carolina, which allows nearly 6.1 yards a play and more than 430 yards a game in total offense. Mississippi State-Missouri, this likely ain't.
3Run the dang ball. Both of these teams come in with reasons to expect they can have some success on the ground. Despite the fact that it often looks like it can't do much of anything competently, South Carolina actually ranks fourth in the SEC in yards per carry, with 4.8. On the other hand, the Gamecocks are also one of just three teams still stuck in the single digits in rushing touchdowns, with the others being Vanderbilt and Missouri, a team that has an allergic reaction every time it gets near the end zone. Meanwhile, Tennessee rushes for 214.1 yards a game, good for second in the conference. But some of that is through sheer determination; the Vols average a league-leading 46.5 rushing attempts per game.
4Punch it in. If this game comes down to making the most out of red-zone opportunities, it's probably safe to give the win to Tennessee. The Vols are not spectacular at getting touchdowns inside the 20-yard line -- at 61.5 percent, they're fifth in the SEC and around the middle of the pack nationally -- but they're light years ahead of South Carolina. The Gamecocks have gotten the ball in the end zone on just 37.5 percent of their red-zone drives; the only team in the conference that does worse is Missouri. That would be the team that, before its Thursday night game against Mississippi State, had not scored a touchdown since the czars ruled Russia. South Carolina technically scores some form of points more often on red-zone drives than Tennessee, but that's largely thanks to the leg of Elliott Fry; the Gamecocks have field goals on 45.8 percent of their red-zone tries, second in the SEC to Missouri.
Jeff Blake -- USA Today Sports
5Third down. Speaking of conversions: Tennessee drives will not be over when the offense gets to third down. South Carolina drives probably will. The Volunteers rank second in the SEC in converting third down, doing so 45.2 percent of the time; that's less than a percentage point behind Arkansas, which leads the SEC in that category. Meanwhile, the South Carolina defense is -- well, the South Carolina defense is not good at anything, but third-down conversions is one of the many, many areas in which the Gamecocks fall short. Opponents turn third down into first down on 42.2 percent of attempts against South Carolina, which ranks 11th in the conference and is perilously close to ranking 12th. The numbers are actually mirror images when the Gamecocks have the ball. South Carolina converts third-down opportunities 34.9 percent of the time, good for 11th in the SEC; Tennessee stops the opponent on third down at a 71.4 percent clip.
THREE TO WATCH
Pharoh Cooper, WR, South Carolina: Nobody who in the preseason had Pharoh Cooper as "the only thing South Carolina's offense will have going for it" -- which was pretty much everyone -- has been proven wrong by the way the season has unfolded. And after a stop-and-start stretch at the beginning of the season, the Gamecocks star has put up 100 receiving yards in three of the last four games, though Texas A&M managed to slow him down last week. If South Carolina has any chance to win this game, it probably includes a big day from Cooper.
Joshua Dobbs, QB, Tennessee: I've said this before about Dobbs, but it's worth repeating as often as necessary -- as goes Dobbs, so go the Volunteers. Tennessee's winning percentage basically breaks down to wins when Dobbs has a better-than-solid stat line and losses when he doesn't. Against Kentucky, the quarterback had 51 rushing yards and two touchdowns on seven attempts and was 16-of-26 passing for 233 yards, two touchdowns and an interception. Given that South Carolina's defense made Greyson Lambert look like a Heisman candidate and this game was a milestone for Dobbs last year ($), expect a huge game from the Volunteers signal-caller.
Jalen Hurd, RB, Tennessee: The South Carolina defense is also very forgiving when it comes to the run game, which means Hurd should get plenty of opportunities on the ground. Overshadowed in the Year of the RB in the SEC, Hurd is churning out 90.6 yards a game and hasn't run for at least 80 yards in just two contests (Western Carolina, when he only had 11 carries, and Kentucky). Hurd should remain on track for a 1,000-yard season after he faces South Carolina.
Yes, the series has been close in recent years. And, yes, South Carolina has been playing better football since Steve Spurrier retired. But it's still hard to see how the Gamecocks keep this game too respectable without some kind of miraculous change on the defensive side of the ball that could keep Tennessee from scoring early and often. It would be sweet revenge for South Carolina if the Volunteers' late-game issues return in this one, and the Gamecocks manage an upset. But don't count on it. Tennessee 43, South Carolina 27