Taking a true sophomore quarterback making his fourth start in his college career and a true freshman making his first career start at running back is not the ideal situation to be in when you're traveling to one of the largest stadiums in college football in the 102,455-seat Neyland Stadium. That's the situation fourteenth-ranked South Carolina will be in when they travel to Knoxville Saturday night to face the Tennessee Volunteers.
"Always a big game for the University of South Carolina," head coach Steve Spurrier said at his weekly press conference. "I don't know how big a game we are to them. They still lead the overall series pretty big – 22 wins, 5 losses. We've only beaten them once in Knoxville in the history of the series, beaten them four times here. It's always exciting for our guys to go up to Rocky Top and play the Tennessee Vols."
Quarterback Connor Shaw will be making just his fourth start of his career, however two of his previous three starts where outside of Williams-Brice, but both were hardly as hostile an environment as Rocky Top.
"I don't know what the noise will be," Spurrier said. "Like I said, it really doesn't matter that
much when you pick your foot up and you signal in the plays so the guys get in position and take off. There's not a lot of verbal language to be used – except occasionally. Occasionally we do.
"You can still audible. Everybody does it, even when they come here, and it's very loud here also. You really just don't even talk about it. You try to control the things you can control, like playing your assignment each play, playing with tremendous effort. Those kinds of things are what we'll be concerned about."
When Shaw took over for Stephen Garcia, some changes were made to the shotgun formation to help with the exchange from center T.J. Johnson that will help with the crowd noise Saturday night.
"We've gone to picking up our foot in the shotgun, even here at home," Spurrier said. "Connor's voice is probably not as loud as Stephen's was. A lot of times we go in there and the center said he can't hear him. We just started lifting the foot here at home. T.J. Johnson has played well, but sometime his hearing is not too good. And he's a young man, too. He says, ‘Coach, I didn't hear him.' Everybody moves and the ball's not snapped. Pick your foot up, we'll all go T.J., when you're ready. That does eliminate jumping offside."
Freshman running back Brandon Wilds will be making his first start due to injuries in the backfield. Starting running back Marcus Lattimore and back-up Shon Carson are both out with season-ending knee injuries, back-ups Kenny Miles and Eric Baker have been limited by injuries. Though Miles is expected to play and Spurrier believes Baker will get some time against Tennessee as well, Wilds will be the starting running back. That is something that, outside of playing fullback, was not something that anyone was expecting this season.
"He played a little bit at fullback, but not a lot," Spurrier said. "He's big enough to play in there if we need him. But maybe that was just to go out for passes or something like that. But, he's a tailback, a one-back-type guy. Now… he started out about fifth team at the beginning of the year. We had Marcus, Shon and Kenny listed as co-second and Eric Baker, and then Brandon. He was about No. 5 there. Now he's No. 1."
Though it is seemingly a situation where the starting job has fallen into Wilds' hands, it is not from a lack of effort and work on his part.
"Brandon, again, is a young man that really didn't have a tremendous senior year in high school," Spurrier said. "He had a pretty good year, but I think probably his junior year might have been statistically better. He's a local kid, so he's always around. Every opportunity I'd see him in the weight room. He's always in that weight room, usually when I'm in there about 1:30 or so. Even when he wasn't a student here he'd come work out on his own. He's a hard worker. I really think he's improved physically a lot between his senior year of high school and now. He's faster; he's stronger, just from hard work. Coach Fitz will tell you Brandon is one of his favorites when they come in the weight room."
Shaw, Wilds, and the rest of the Gamecock team will be facing a Volunteer team that is not as good as Tennessee teams in the past, but still a team that can give Carolina some problems if they are not on the top of their game.
"Tennessee is a team that hasn't been quite as strong as they normally are. They've played some good halves against top teams in the country. They haven't been able to finish those games. We know they'll be ready for us. We're a type of team that hasn't clobbered anybody much.
"It's going to be a down-to-the-wire ball game. We have to believe that – very similar to Mississippi State and our other games against some folks this year. Hopefully our guys can play one of our best games."
Moving on without Lattimore
Saturday will mark the first time South Carolina will play without Marcus Lattimore since the Vanderbilt game a year ago. Though Lattimore will not be able to play he will still make the trip up Saturday with the team and be on the sidelines.
"It will be different going without Marcus, although, Marcus is going on the trip," Spurrier said. "Marcus indicated he'd like to be with his teammates, be on the sidelines, be in the meetings. So we're going to pack him on the bus, on the airplane, and take him with us. He'll be with us in spirit and encouragement. I'm sure he'll be a super teammate on the sideline cheering for his teammates out there."
South Carolina, despite the 6-1 record, has failed to score first in each of its games this season. Carolina trailed 17-0 against East Carolina, 6-0 against Georgia, 7-0 against Navy, 3-0 against Vanderbilt, Auburn, and Kentucky, and 7-0 against Mississippi State before getting on the board.
"We can't score first," Spurrier said. "Even against Kentucky and Vandy we have had a turnover –fumbled the opening kickoff (against Kentucky). Against Vandy we had an (interception) I know they got it on about our (22). I don't know what to think if we score first. It does mean we're not going to panic. Gosh, I remember they used to say the team that scores first wins, what? 60 percent, something like that? Over 50 percent, I think … They used to say that, but those statistics may not be true anymore."
Another interesting statistic is that South Carolina is the only team in the FBS to attempt a field goal in the red zone. In fact, kicker Jay Wooten has yet to attempt a field goal inside of 42 yards. Wooten has connected on 4-of-6 field goals, connecting on a long of 49 yards, two from 48 yards, and one from 42. He has missed from 46 and 44 yards.
"We've not attempted a field goal in the red zone," Spurrier said. "I've always been a big believer – I know everyone is --- of scoring touchdowns instead of kicking field goals. It seems like when you kick a whole bunch of little field goals you end up getting beat somehow. Jay Wooten's only attempt, I think six field goals. He's four of six. Maybe we'll have to kick a short one this week. Hopefully not, though."
Carolina has played the last three games without starting tackle Kyle Nunn, who was out with a back injury. They found out last week that they will be without Nunn the rest of the season after suffering a blood clot in his leg two weeks ago. That has created a shift in the line with guys moving around to make sure the best five guys are on the field.
"It's probably affected a little bit here and there, pass protection wise," Spurrier said. "Kyle was having a good year. Cody Gibson stepped in there. He's ready to go. Rokevious (Watkins) over there. It's probably hurt us a little bit. Kyle was having a good year. When a guy gets hurt, you put the next guy in there and do the best you can. Our offensive line, they played pretty decent the last game. They were pretty decent against Mississippi State."
Keeping ahead in the East
The next three games are obviously crucial games that will decide whether Carolina will be playing in the Georgia Dome on the first weekend in December in the SEC Championship game. Right now the Gamecocks are tied with Georgia for first in the East at with identical 4-1 records in the SEC, however Carolina owns the tiebreaker over the Dawgs.
With a match-up with eighth-ranked Arkansas looming next week, this week's game is crucial if the Gamecocks want to represent the East. Georgia has games with Florida, Kentucky, and Auburn remaining and expecting them to lose more than one of the three could be wishful thinking. With both Alabama and LSU off this week prior to their monumental clash next weekend, all eyes will be on Knoxville and Jacksonville.
"There's attention on our side," Spurrier said. "Ask those Georgia Bulldogs what kind of attention they're giving us every week. And, we're giving them a little bit of attention. We don't want to be uptight about it. We talked briefly about where we are, what our goals are. Obviously, the first goal is to win the Eastern Division. Again, you want to just concentrate on the game that week. That's mainly all we talk about after. ‘Hey, we know where we are, we can't afford to lose this one if we want to win the East – which we do – and we'd better bring our best game to beat Tennessee."
Spurrier said earlier in the season that they would choose team captains during the bye week and that's exactly what they did. The team voted and selected Travian Robertson, Melvin Ingram, Terrence Campbell, and Alshon Jeffery.
"We let the guys vote for the top four," Spurrier said. "They were the top four. If we had three on defense, one on offense, or vice versa, we'd have done it like that. They're our captains and I think our guys will do a good job. (We) Have a lot of leadership and direction for the team as we make the stretch run the next three weeks. The next three weeks will decide our conference and what we do in the division of the SEC. After that, we'll decide what the regular season holds for us those last two games."
Shaw, Wilds to face hostile environment
Gamecock Anthem Top Stories
Scout 2018: Top 30 for 2018Scout releases its updated Top 30 for the Class of 2018, which is now on the clock leading up to National Signing Day 2018...
Updated Scout 300 Trend Meter For 2017Signing day is Feb. 1 and the updated Scout 300 Trend Meter for the 2017 class takes a look at which schools are trending for each uncommitted member in the Scout 300.
Top 100 high school football prospectsOf the 270,000 high school seniors that played football in 2016, only these players made Scout.com's Top 100 list.
Scout's Top 25 Recruiting ClassesA look at Scout's top 25 classes with just over a week to go to Signing Day.