Inconsistent Gamecocks and Vols to square off
The Tennessee Volunteers and South Carolina Gamecocks were two programs with high expectations entering the 2007 season. One was a team still relatively early in a new era of Carolina football, believing it could finally compete for championships. The other was a team in an era drawing to a close, trying to reach the elite level of past glory. As the two programs' annual near-Halloween bash approaches, both have had eerily similar seasons to this point. And now as the two teams collide Saturday, the inconsistent Vols and Gamecocks will play what will likely be an elimination game for the loser in the wide-open SEC East race.
Both Tennessee and South Carolina have experienced an up-and-down type year. The highs have been high and the lows have been extremely low. For the Volunteers, the height of the season came in week five in the form of a dominant drubbing of SEC East rival Georgia at home, 35-14. The impressive win, however, is somewhat overshadowed by huge losses to rivals Florida and Alabama. In the two losses Tennessee was outscored 100-37 and completely dominated in every facet of the game. Last week's Alabama loss may have stung just a bit more because it came at a time when many believe the 2007 Vols were beginning to hit their stride.
For South Carolina the height of the season was an early SEC East win in Athens over the same Bulldogs, as well as a home Thursday night win over then No. 8 ranked Kentucky. South Carolina's defense dominated both games as South Carolina never trailed in either contest. The low point of the season came just last week in an embarrassing home loss to Vanderbilt. South Carolina gave up 17 first quarter points, which was enough to defeat a struggling offense that had five false starts and surrendered seven sacks.
Despite the heartbreaking recent losses, both teams find themselves still right in the middle of the SEC East battle and desperately needing a win to keep pace with the other teams in the division. At 2-2 in the SEC, Tennessee would likely have to win out to and would need help from some of their compatriots as Florida holds the tie-breaker over them. South Carolina, on the other hand, has a 3-2 SEC East record, and with wins over Georgia and Kentucky, still controls their own destiny in a year that remarkably could even feature a 3-loss team representing the East in the SEC Championship game.
With both teams coming off disheartening losses, the key to Saturday's game could be which team can look at the big picture and pick themselves up off the ground quickly enough to put up a solid fight down the stretch of what has already been one of the wildest college football seasons in recent history.
Should both teams show up ready to play, then the story of the game may be a strength versus strength matchup between the Gamecocks' secondary and the Volunteers' passing attack. While Tennessee has largely been considered a running team under Coach Phil Fulmer, they have a senior quarterback running the show and have the No. 2 passing offense in the SEC. Volunteer quarterback Eric Ainge is completing 66-percent of his passes for an average of 257 yards a game. Something will have to give as the South Carolina secondary is also one of the best units in the league. Led by cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and safety Emanuel Cook, the Gamecock secondary is first in the league in yards allowed at just 146 yards a game. The South Carolina defense as a whole is second in the SEC, allowing only 16.6 points a game. A big part of the Tennessee passing game's success is the time that their experienced quarterback has in the pocket. The Volunteer offensive line is leading the SEC in sacks given up and has only surrendered an unbelievable two sacks on the entire season. The USC defensive line will have to get some type of pressure on Ainge in order to give the secondary a chance. As good as they are, any secondary will get beat if the quarterback has enough time.
If the passing game battle is the strength versus strength contest, then the Volunteer defensive line facing off with the Gamecock offensive line is the weakness versus weakness matchup. The much maligned South Carolina offensive line has been inconsistent all year, and with the coaches still desperately looking for the right combination of players, it all boiled over Saturday against Vanderbilt in what was the worst offensive line showing of the Spurrier era. The seven-sack performance was no fluke, as the line is last in the SEC having given up 26 sacks on the season. Statistically the Tennessee defensive line may be just as bad at getting sacks as the USC line is at stopping them from occurring. Fans used to seeing mammoth athletic linemen manning the Tennessee line will be surprised to know the Vols find themselves dead-last in the SEC in sacks with 9.
While the USC offensive line has made every D-line they've faced look good, this would be the perfect opportunity for them to start gaining some confidence. The Gamecock offense is not a dynamic unit right now capable of stretching the field, converting third and longs, or throwing 50 times a game. The offense cannot absorb sacks on drives and then expect to sustain drives by completing long passes down field. The line is just not good enough right now to protect against a defensive line pinning its ears back and gearing up for the pass. Getting down big early, being one-dimensional and third and long situations all put the offensive line in that precarious situation.
What the South Carolina offense can do, however, is get back to basics and ride their talented backfield duo as far as they can take them. The defense is good enough to keep the Gamecocks in any game left on the schedule. The offense just can't continue to put them in bad situations. The Carolina offense will need to play ball-control, balanced football and force other teams to bring their safeties up against the run. Then the Gamecocks' can use their passing game off play action, which will allow the struggling offensive line to face a much more subdued pass rush, forced to at least consider the run before getting after the QB.
As much as Coach Spurrier wants to run 35 "ball plays" a game and throw the ball around the yard, the pieces are just not there yet for the offense to be successful in doing so. If there are two things that make Spurrier great more than anything else, they are his desire to win and his ability to adapt. Spurrier doesn't like losing, and he especially doesn't like getting embarrassed. Both of those things happened last week. Spurrier will adapt to what he has on offense and will come up with a plan to best use those abilities. We saw Spurrier trust his defense early in the season against Georgia when he made decisions to pin Georgia deep and make them drive the length of the field rather than go for it on offense and risk giving them good field position. I expect the Gamecocks to be ready Saturday and for the Halloween-weekend bash to come down to the fourth quarter. When it's all over with, despite the losses last week, one team should find itself still feeling pretty good about the season.
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