The topic of what bowl game the Gamecocks (4-4, 2-4 SEC) will participate in made its rounds through Columbia’s airwaves this week, but the defense might not allow them to even reach that point.
Getting two more wins to become bowl eligible won’t be easy with a South Carolina defense that is tied for last in the SEC with 32.8 points allowed per game and second-to-last in the conference with 438 total yards allowed per game.
This particular game may be another tough one for defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward’s bunch since one of its best players, sophomore linebacker Skai Moore, is doubtful with an ankle injury.
Additionally, Ward and company are up against an uncertain situation regarding who will line up as Tennessee’s quarterback.
Volunteers head coach Butch Jones hasn’t named a starter yet, as Justin Worley is still battling a shoulder injury. The senior missed Tennessee’s loss to Alabama last week and sophomore Joshua Dobbs stepped in to the tune of 192 total passing yards and two touchdowns along with 75 rushing yards.
Worley has practiced this week, but is still having trouble with velocity, so anything can happen from him playing to him getting shut down for the season.
“We know it’s different, when they change and put No. 11 (Dobbs) back there. He’s a different type of quarterback. He’s a running quarterback,” defensive line coach Deke Adams said. “That changes things a lot, but we’re prepared. We know some of the things we have problems with and we know what we feel like we’re going to see.”
Something has got to give between South Carolina’s defense and the Tennessee offense, with the Volunteers at second-to-last in the SEC in both rushing offense (104.9 yards per game) and points (23.9 per game).
It’s important to note, however, that the Volunteers haven’t seen this weak of a defense in any of their other matchups with power conference teams. The closest resemblance to South Carolina’s defense for Tennessee was when it faced Georgia. Worley helped the Vols’ offense play one of their best games in a 35-32 loss, so this team has the ability to put up good offensive numbers.
Another important consideration is that Dobbs is more of a mobile quarterback than a Worley-type, who is more of a pocket-passer. As seen in the losses against Auburn and Texas A&M, the Gamecocks do not fare too well against dual-threat options under center.
Even with all the struggles against the run, South Carolina players believe that their mistakes, which have not been fixed for eight games, can still be corrected.
“I feel like it’s correctable because it’s all an assignment thing,” redshirt sophomore linebacker Marcquis Roberts said. “Once we get all eleven players doing their job, we’re pretty good.”
The problem is getting all 11 players on the same page seems to only happen 50 percent of the time according to Roberts and other defensive members.
Tennessee's talented true freshman running back Jalen Hurd has only one 100-yard game thus far, but will look for that breakout performance against South Carolina.
And if the Volunteers somehow find trouble running the ball, they can look to a big, 6-foot-4 target in sophomore receiver Marquez North. But, the Gamecock faithful don't even want to think about the player who caught a 39-yard pass with one hand to help set up Tennessee’s game-winning field goal against them last year.
To help throw off any Volunteer passing success, the Gamecocks will need to bring some pressure. Although, maybe fans shouldn’t kid themselves since the garnet-and-black have managed just eight sacks in eight games, good for last in the SEC as well as a tie for 118th in the nation.
The losses of Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles along the defensive line have proved to be as critical as advertised.
Yet, this Gamecock defensive group refuses to give up with four games remaining, perhaps five games if things start to improve.
“We got to keep our heads up,” redshirt sophomore defensive end and team sack leader Gerald Dixon said. “It’s just the little things that’s stopping us from being a good defense. We just got to make plays when the opportunity’s there and we got to make tackles.”