What To Watch For: Tennessee

GamecockAnthem takes a weekly look at a few things to watch for in the upcoming game. This week takes a look at the Tennessee Volunteers as the Gamecocks return home for the first time since early October.

There's no place like home.

The line certainly holds true for the South Carolina Gamecocks as they return home to the friendly-confines of Williams-Brice Stadium where they have won eight straight games at home dating back to last season.

South Carolina is coming off two losses back-to-back against top 10 teams in LSU and Florida. This week, the Gamecocks get to face a Tennessee team that hasn't beaten a ranked team on the road since beating Georgia on Oct. 7, 2006.

Whether that's good news or not for South Carolina, the Gamecocks still need to overcome their recent woes and return to winning ways in hopes of salvaging a 10-win, or more, season. Tennessee is 22-6-2 over South Carolina in the previous 30 meetings all-time against the Gamecocks. However, the Gamecocks have won three of the last four games – including the last two – against Tennessee in recent series history.

The Volunteers bring a prolific offense, and a struggling defense, with them to Columbia this weekend. Quarterback Tyler Bray can throw it with the best of them if he's not turning the ball over while Rajion Neal and Cordarrelle Patterson continue to have impressive seasons. On defense, A.J. Johnson leads this unit that is giving up 445.4 yards on average per game.

South Carolina will need a strong performance from Connor Shaw and Marcus Lattimore and hope their defense can contain Tennessee's offense in order to have a chance at victory.

With that in mind, let's take a look at this week's What To Watch For.

Can South Carolina bring the pressure on Tennessee's offensive line?

Tennessee's offensive line has been extremely impressive this season for the Volunteers. Currently, the Vols have given up just three sacks all season long putting them with the lowest total in the NCAA and the second-best nationally in 2012. A major reason for the success for Tennessee on the offensive line has been the ability to use the same starting five all season long – LG Dallas Thomas, C James Stone, RG Zach Fulton and RT Ja'Wuan James.

The bad news, and good for South Carolina, is RG Zach Fulton is listed as doubtful for this weekend's game. Tennessee will likely replace Fulton with Alex Bullard or Marcus Jackson this weekend but it's always tough for an offensive line to adjust to the change of personnel after getting used to the same group on a weekly basis.

South Carolina is one of the nation's best when it comes to sacks with an SEC-best 29 sacks on the season. South Carolina averages 3.63 sacks per game through eight games this season.

It's been hard to stop the Gamecocks defensive line this season and not sure Tennessee will be able to do it this weekend. Tyler Bray is a top-notch quarterback who can get rid of the ball quickly but he's not very mobile when compared to other quarterbacks. Jadeveon Clowney's speed has been nearly unmatched this year as he's racked up 7.5 sacks and 14.0 tackles for loss. Bray has already thrown nine interceptions this season and may force a few more this weekend if the Gamecocks bring the pressure.

South Carolina may not leave the game with high sacks totals, but their presence should be felt on a consistent basis on Saturday.

Is this the weekend Marcus Lattimore gets his carries?

It's starting to sound like a broken record around Columbia. The plan is to give Marcus Lattimore the ball and run him more to help the Gamecocks win. We heard it again on Wednesday night from running backs coach Everette Sands. Will the Gamecocks do it this weekend? It'd be a great start for a chance at victory.

In this season alone, South Carolina is 4-0 when Lattimore carries the ball 20 times or more in a game. It just so happens that those were Lattimore's best games, including his three 100-yard games of the season. South Carolina seems to play better when Marcus Lattimore gets the ball and Coach Sands admitted on Wednesday night that Lattimore gets tougher as the game goes on even by receiving carries in the high teens or more.

Obviously it's easier said than done. Last weekend, Lattimore was nursing an injury and the Gamecocks fell behind early and were forced to abandon the run. This weekend, Lattimore is back to full health and should expect a heavy workload. It also helps that Tennessee has allowed an average of 186.6 yards per game on the ground to opponents this year.

South Carolina wins when Lattimore carries the football. It's a simple formula and the Gamecocks will likely return to that formula this weekend.

Special Teams should play a factor

Last week, South Carolina fumbled the ball three times on special teams plays that resulted in two lost fumbles and some prime field position for the Florida offense. It certainly played a huge factor in the game as it helped Florida build an early lead and essentially neutralize South Carolina's game plan.

The Gamecocks can't afford those same mistakes this week. Returners Ace Sanders, Bruce Ellington and Damiere Byrd will all continue to get the same workload as before as Steve Spurrier indicated Tuesday that the returners have been pretty good this season. Ace Sanders has been extremely impressive on punt returns this year. Holding onto the football will be goal number one in the return game this weekend.

On the other side, the Gamecocks will have to contend with dynamite return man Cordarralle Patterson. Patterson has a total of 417 yards on kickoff returns this year for an average of 34.8 yards per return. He returned a 98-yard kickoff for a touchdown in his season-opener against NC State and had a total of 111 yards on 4 returns against Alabama.

The Gamecocks have had their issues in kickoff coverage at times this season allowing for some big gains on kickoff returns. Take the first kickoff for Florida at the start of the second half for instance. South Carolina had just put up three points before halftime making the game a two score game. If South Carolina's defense was able to hold Florida to a quick three-and-out on their first series, it could have given the Gamecocks some momentum to push towards the comeback. Florida's Andre Debose returns The Opening kickoff 39 yards to the Florida 41-yard line and already South Carolina is in a hole. The USC defense would be unable to stop Florida on that drive and the Gators scored a touchdown essentially putting the game away in their favor. Obviously, South Carolina's defense needed a stop and had their chances, but what if South Carolina had pinned Florida on their own 20-yard line. It's possible we could be talking about a different outcome had there been better coverage on that kick return by the Gators.

This goes to show how important it is to be sound in kickoff coverage on each and every return. You just never know what play can change the outcome of a game and with Tennessee's Patterson, he's got the ability to score at every return.

Special teams could be huge this weekend for the Gamecocks.

Crowd impact on Saturday's game

It will be interesting to see what kind of environment the Gamecocks have this weekend at Williams-Brice. Two back-to-back losses have essentially wiped out all the good will that Carolina had built up following the dominating win over Georgia on October 6. South Carolina is still mathematically alive for the SEC East but they'll need a lot of help from some friends to beat out the Gators, and even UGA, if they hope to finish atop the division.

South Carolina has a great fan base. It's shown tremendous support over the years through the good times and bad. The expectations in Columbia have changed and with the Gamecocks likely out of the championship hunt, will the idea of a double-digit win season be enough to keep the Gamecocks happy? It should considering back-to-back double-digit win seasons has never happened in school history. You just have to wonder how fans will respond knowing they are playing for pride now instead of something bigger.

Another concern is the early noon kickoff time for Saturday's game. Fans routinely dislike these early noon kickoff games just because it makes it that much tougher to get to the stadium, especially if they are traveling out of town.

South Carolina's home atmosphere has become increasingly difficult to play in during the last few years. This weekend will likely be no different. Just don't be surprised if you see a few extra empty seats this weekend around Williams-Brice.


South Carolina and Tennessee will air on ESPN at noon on Saturday afternoon with Dave Pasch calling the play-by-play, Brian Griese as the color analyst and Jenn Brown as the sideline reporter. Todd Ellis, Tommy Suggs and Langston Moore will be covering the game for the Gamecock IMG Sports Network.

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