Smashmouth Kings of Tennessee

Yesterday, wide receiver Mikal Goodman stated the Tennessee game is "the biggest of the year." Goodman observed the Tennessee game would "make or break our season." Why are the Gamecocks attaching such weight to the early season tilt against the Tennessee Volunteers? There are two reasons; one rational and the other emotional ...

The rational explanation is that the Gamecocks are still aiming to win an SEC championship, obviously an unannounced preseason goal. The undefeated Vols, winners over perennial-champ Florida last week, and currently alone atop of the SEC's Eastern Division standings, are in the drivers seat.

The emotive reason, however, is more compelling. That is; whipping the highly-physical Volunteers in front of over 100,000 screaming, orange-clad partisans, is the ultimate victory by smashmouth.

When the Gamecocks spill onto the field in Neyland stadium this Saturday night they will be in the most hostile of venues and facing the most physically dominating of SEC East foes. Blow some smoke into the players eyes, they are entering the site of a true cockfight -- and in the end, the Title of SEC East Smashmouth King will be decreed. Snatching that title from the big bully of the SEC is an emotional goal that cannot be understated.

Before we delve into the emotionally compelling issue, let's look at the practical explanations for Goodman's remarks. Because of Georgia's loss to LSU and UT's victory over Florida last week, the Volunteers are in first place in the SEC's Eastern Division. They hold a half-game lead over Georgia.

Under the SEC's tiebreaker system, the first criteria for determining the SEC East Champion is head-to-head competition amongst tied teams. If the Gamecocks lose to Tennessee on Saturday, the loss to the Vols would make winning an SEC East Championship this year highly unlikely. Even if Tennessee stumbles later this year, the Gamecocks would still fall behind them due to the conference tie-breaker rules. Thus, a victory over Tennessee is very important to the Gamecocks as far as accomplishing their goal of winning the SEC East. This is a rational explanation why Goodman emphasized the importance of the Tennessee game.

However, there is a more important reason for beating the Vols, and it is emotional.

Emotively, the Gamecocks crave the title of Smashmouth King. Since his arrival, Lou Holtz has preached to his players the idea of toughness. By now it is obvious to all Gamecock fans that notwithstanding the fact the allegedly pass-happy Skip Holtz is controlling the offense this season, the Gamecocks prefer to just crush their opponents into corn meal. That was the case against last week's opponent, UAB, and Virginia several weeks earlier. Despite this early season evidence, Holtz cautioned the media not to expect the same type of performance against Tennessee. "We aren't naive enough to believe that we're just going to go in there and just -- boom! -- crunch them like we did UAB. [Tennessee] is no UAB, in all due respect to UAB."

We have been around Lou Holtz enough to recognize Lou Holtz speak. In our view, the unsaid meaning behind Lou's remarks here is that he hopes the Gamecocks will prove his statement quite wrong. In other words, Lou would like nothing better from his Gamecocks than to see them crush the Vols by running over their defense.

Therefore folks, we're not attaching much weight to the pregame publicity about Freshman Noah Whitesides' special talents. Nor do we believe that the deceptive comments about the alleged health problems of speedy wide receivers Matt Thomas and Troy Williamson (both of whom mysteriously developed leg injuries this week) hint the Gamecocks will take to the air against Tennessee. Nope, we believe the Gamecocks will seek to establish a punishing ground game. That, is exactly what Lou Holtz wants to see from his offense. He even said it early this week: "We have to find a way (to run the ball)."

Is it possible for the Gamecocks to establish a running game against Tennessee? Playing against a difficult early season schedule which includes Marshall and Florida, Tennessee is currently sixth in the country -- and tops in the SEC -- against the run (53.3 yards). Their past three opponents have combined to run for 160 yards and only 1.95 yards per carry.

Like most Gamecock fans, we are quite excited about the obvious talent of Freshman running back Demetris Summers, number 31. Clearly, Summers 161 yard showing against UAB, an out of conference foe with a poor 1-3 record, did not impress Vol Coach, Phillip Fulmer. "We've gone up against good backs before,'' Fulmer said earlier this week. Reporters who heard Fulmer's remarks stated the confidence was obvious in his voice.

We appreciate the fact that Holtz cautioned fans against high expectations based on Summers performance in the UAB game. He said, Summers would "have to fight for every yard he gets against Tennessee." Despite Holtz' comments, we believe the Gamecocks offensive gameplan will include serving the Tennessee defense a generous portion of Summers/Turman stew. We believe that the Tennessee defense will eat the stew throughout four quarters even though they will not like its taste.

Challenge number one; run the ball against a good Tennessee defense.

On the other side of the coin, the defense will have to step up and stop an excellent Tennessee running game. Earlier this week Holtz acknowledged the difficulty of the defense's task: "We have never seen a power team like Tennessee."

Holtz is correct. Tennessee averages 212 yards on the ground, second in the SEC behind Arkansas. The Vol's best tailback, Cedric Houston, is second among the SEC's rushers with 346 yards in only three games. He averages 115.3 yards per game and 6.1-yards per carry. These statistics are even more impressive when one considers that Houston was limited by injury to just 25 yards on 12 carries against Florida.

Complicating matters for the Gamecocks is that thus far this season their defense has had a hard time stopping the run, allowing an average of 119 yards a game. The challenge to the Gamecock defensive line and linebackers will be huge.

Notwithstanding the statistics, in our opinion, the key to beating the Vols is whipping them physically. The last time a team did that to the Vols, Maryland, Tennessee lost big, 30-3. In the Peach Bowl last year, Maryland's defense held Tennessee to 45 net yards rushing. Jabari Davis and Cedrick Houston, Tennessee's star running backs, combined for only 45 yards rushing. Maryland's defense also sacked Clausen 6 times. In short, Maryland's defensive line and linebackers dominated Tennessee's offensive line, snatching the crown of Smashmouth King from the big bully of the SEC East, and spitting in his eye to boot.

Maryland's tenacity and toughness was unsettling to the Volunteer players. Following the game Clausen admitted the Volunteers were intimidated by Maryland. "It's a mentality," Clausen said. "It's been a long time since we've been physically whipped." Maryland's All-American linebacker E.J. Henderson concurred with Clausen's assessment. "We wanted to get after them," Henderson said. "We knew if we stopped their run, we'd stop them, because they're a one-dimensional team."

How can the Gamecocks win? By emulating Maryland and dominating the Vols in the trenches. Clearly, the Gamecocks must shut down the Tennessee ground attack, and pressure Clausen into making turnovers. It is easy to write, but hard to do. However, it can be done by a team inspired to become the Smashmouth King of the SEC East.

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