South Carolina Gamecocks (4-2, 2-2 SEC) at Tennessee Volunteers (3-2, 0-2 SEC)
When: Noon ET/11:00 AM CT, Saturday, October 14, 2017
Where: Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, TN
TV coverage: ESPN
Online stream: WatchESPN
All-time series: Tennessee leads, 25-8-2
Last meeting: South Carolina won, 24-21, on October 29, 2016
Odds (via oddsshark.com): Tennessee -3.5; over/under 47.5
It’s not a stretch to say that the Tennessee Volunteers’ season is on the line on Saturday.
The Vols sit at 3-2 and 0-2 in the SEC. With losses to Florida and Georgia, they’re likely already eliminated from the East race. They’ve fallen all the way to 56th in the S&P+ rankings.
While Tennessee is favored on Saturday, and should be favored in five of their seven remaining games, there aren’t any obvious gimmes left on the schedule — at least, not if they’re playing like the #56 team in the country. In fact, S&P+ gives Tennessee a 24 percent chance of finishing the season with fewer than six wins — which, while still rather unlikely, would qualify as an unmitigated disaster.
South Carolina, meanwhile, is 4-2 — and given the schedule the Gamecocks have played, that has to be considered a success thus far. Even though the Gamecocks have won some games by the skin of their teeth (beating Louisiana Tech by one point, and beating NC State in spite of the Wolfpack doubling them up in yardage). A win over Tennessee would put them just one win away from bowl eligibility. Here are three things to watch.
Will this be Butch Jones’ last game as Tennessee’s head coach?
Let’s address the elephant in the room first.
It’s hard to imagine a worse time to have a bye week. For one thing, the bye week gave Tennessee an extra week to stew over their last outing, when Georgia came into Knoxville and drubbed the Vols by a 41-0 score.
For another, the news coming out of Knoxville during the two-week interim was almost all bad. Defensive lineman Darrell Taylor — already suspended for the first half of the South Carolina game after being ejected from the Georgia game — decided to extend that suspension by kicking stud true freshman OL Trey Smith in the face.
Then, Butch Jones decided to make a quarterback switch. He opted for redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano to get the start on Saturday ahead of Quinten Dormady. Dormady had started the first five games of the season.
There wasn’t really much of an argument for Dormady, who’d completed 55.5 percent of his passes on the season and thrown 6 interceptions to 6 touchdowns. Then again, there’s not really much of an argument for Guarantano, either. The redshirt freshman had completed just 50 percent of his passes in spot duty and averaged a mind-numbingly bad 1.6 yards per attempt while not providing much of a running threat, either.
But it’s a testament to the state of the program right now that rumors immediately surfaced that Dormady was leaving the team after losing his starting job — because, well, why would you want to be in this program right now if you’re getting benched in favor of an inferior player?
In other words, this quarterback switch isn’t a solid backup overtaking a flagging starter. This is a mark of desperation, an attempt just to find a spark, anything to revive a team that seems (from the outside) to be falling apart. And the rumors that Butch Jones could be on his last legs... persist, because the problems with the program just aren’t getting fixed. If anything, they’re multiplying.
Is South Carolina good or lucky?
This season, South Carolina ranks 81st in Offensive S&P+. That’s not good. Their defense is 44th in Defensive S&P+ — decent, but hardly great.
And the Gamecocks are 4-2. Last week’s 48-22 win over Arkansas was a bit misleading: the Gamecocks’ offense outgained Arkansas 358-330, but the Gamecocks had two pick sixes and a 73-yard scoop and score. On the season, South Carolina has a plus-7 turnover margin. In other words, there’s a lot of smoke and mirrors behind the 4-2 record.
Of course, on the other side, Tennessee has a minus-4 turnover margin on the season. While South Carolina is vastly outperforming its expected turnover margin, Tennessee is grossly underperforming its expected turnover margin.
Will that continue — or will both teams see a reversion to the mean?
How many touches will John Kelly get?
This could be Tennessee’s saving grace. Jarrett Guarantano might not be a great quarterback -- but it might not matter.
On the season, John Kelly has 97 rushing attempts and 22 pass catches, for 723 total yards, for 6.1 yards per touch. That’s good. Tennessee can have an effective offense just by getting Kelly the damn ball.
Then again, against Georgia, Kelly only gained 91 yards on 20 touches (16 rushes, 4 catches)... so perhaps opposing defenses are catching on to the fact that Kelly is the Vols’ only real offensive threat. Maybe Tennessee will need Guarantano to beat South Carolina, after all.