5 Questions For South Carolina/Tennessee
1. Will the Gamecocks be able to pressure Erik Ainge?
If there is one key to the Gamecocks competing on Saturday night against the #8 ranked Volunteers, it will be Carolina's ability to generate pressure on Tennessee quarterback Erik Ainge. The junior signal-caller is the catalyst for the Vols offense that is averaging nearly 300 yards passing per contest, which not surprisingly ranks first in the SEC. Under David Cutcliffe's tutelage, Ainge has matured light years since his sophomore struggles last season. Ainge is confident and poised in the pocket, and if given time, he can pick apart even the best defensive backfield.
The Gamecock secondary, which is anchored by senior cornerback Fred Bennett, has fared well in pass coverage this season, but they have not faced a passing offense the caliber of what they will see on Saturday night. The Vols have excelled in pass protection this season, but it is imperative that the Gamecocks find a way to generate pressure, whether it be with the front four or designed blitzes.
2. Can South Carolina run the ball on Tennessee?
Ever since Steve Spurrier decided to insert Syvelle Newton into the starting quarterback rotation, the Gamecocks rushing attack has steadily improved over the past five games. Led by junior workhorse Cory Boyd, who has racked up consecutive 100+ yard performances, the Gamecocks running game has averaged 172 yards rushing since Newton's move behind center. Life has come much easier for the Gamecocks with success in the ground game, and USC will look to establish the run early and often against the Vols defense on Saturday night.
However, while the Gamecocks would like to establish the run on Tennessee, that may be easier said than done. The Vols are fresh off an outing where they held the Alabama rushing attack to a mere 53 yards on 30 carries, and the UT defense has steadily progressed against the run ever since surrendering a mind boggling 281 yards rushing to the Air Force option offense in week two of the season. The improved Carolina running game against the stout Tennessee run defense will be a key match up to watch on Saturday evening, and whoever can impose their will on the other will hold the upper hand on that side of the ball.
3. Will Sidney Rice scorch the Vols secondary for the second year in a row?
Last season in Knoxville, freshman wide receiver Sidney Rice was a budding star in Steve Spurrier‘s offense, and he had his coming out party in Neyland Stadium, as he terrorized the Tennessee defense with 8 catches for 112 yards and 2 touchdowns. Things haven't come as easy this season for Rice, who is widely considered one of the top receivers in the nation, and he is sure to warrant plenty of attention from the Tennessee defense on Saturday night.
The Vols secondary is surrendering a respectable 160 yards per game through the air, which ranks 19th in the nation. They have a solid pair of cover corners in Jonathan Hefney and Jonathan Wade, and they will likely throw a variety of looks at Rice on Saturday night. Rice was the difference maker in the Gamecocks 16-15 triumph over the Vols last season, and if he can have a similar showing on Saturday, the Gamecocks will likely be in good position to pull the upset.
4. Can South Carolina's run defense contain the struggling Tennessee rushing attack?
The Tennessee offense has not featured their typical punishing ground game this season, but rather has thrived off of a superb passing attack. However, any offense needs balance to be successful, and the Vols have lacked that balance recently. The Tennessee offense, which averages a mere 119 yards rushing per game, completely abandoned the running game in last week's narrow 16-13 victory over the Crimson Tide. The Vols threw the ball 46 times, but only managed 21 rushing attempts, and the Alabama defense was able to have success by making the Tennessee offense one dimensional.
The South Carolina run defense has shown improvement from a year ago, but they still lack the consistency of an elite defense in stopping the ground game. The Gamecocks are currently surrendering 147 yards rushing per game, but much like Tennessee, they have shown improvement against the run since giving up 290 yards rushing to an unconventional Wofford option offense. The Tennessee passing attack is enough to worry about as it is, but the Gamecocks will look to slow down Arian Foster and the Volunteer rushing attack in an effort to keep the Vols one dimensional on offense.
5. How will the Gamecock crowd play a role in Saturday night's game?
The South Carolina fan base is widely renowned for having some of the most loyal and enthusiastic fans in the nation, and that enthusiasm is only amplified when the team is winning. With all of the hype from ESPN Gameday coming to town, the hopes of knocking off a top 10 team, and the dream of staying alive in the hunt for the SEC-East, the Carolina faithful will create a truly raucous environment at Williams Brice Stadium on Saturday night.
The Volunteers will look to quiet the crowd early on, but at the same time, the Gamecocks must get off to a good start to keep the crowd involved and fully utilize the home field advantage. The home crowd was nearly enough to help the Gamecocks pull the upset over then #2 ranked Auburn, and they will look to make life equally as difficult for the Vols on Saturday.
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