Spurrier previews showdown with Tennessee

Something unusual will happen at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday. For just the second time since joining the SEC, the Gamecocks are favored to beat the Volunteers (having been 1 ½ point favorites in 2004). Equally surprising, though, is that both teams enter the game in the bottom half of the SEC in offense. Throw in tough defenses and quarterback changes, and the teams look very similar.


South Carolina is favored by six over the struggling Vols, who are mired in a disappointing 3-5 season that has featured abysmal offense without former coordinator David Cutcliff and repeated calls for coach Phillip Fulmer's job. Tennessee is next to last in the SEC in scoring offense and total offense (18.4 points per game, 107th in the country, and 280.6 yards per game, 112th in the country) ninth in the SEC and 98th overall in passing offense (167.1 yards per game), and perhaps most gallingly for Fulmer, next to last in the SEC and 100th in the nation in rushing offense (113.5 yards per game). If Tennessee can take any solace in those numbers, it is that the Gamecocks are worse in rushing offense, last in the conference and 108th overall, at 100.2 yards per game.

Aside from the running game, Carolina's offense is not nearly in the dire straits in which Tennessee finds itself. The Gamecocks are only seventh in the SEC in scoring offense and total offense (22.4 points and 339.9 yards per game, respectively), but they are second to Georgia in the SEC and 36th in the country in passing offense, at 239.6 yards per game, and also trail only the Bulldogs in the number of first downs picked up.

That has not stopped Spurrier from doing what he does best: rotating quarterbacks. Even after Stephen Garcia appeared to cement his role as the starter with a good showing in his first start against LSU, Spurrier left the door open for Chris Smelley to reclaim the job.

"Stephen Garcia is set to start the game," Spurrier confirmed. "If he struggles and has a lot of problems, Chris Smelley may go in. We'll just have to see how it goes. We'll give Stephen every opportunity, if he seems to know what he's doing in there and making good decisions. Chris seems to know what he's doing also. It seems like the guy that comes off the bench has played pretty well around here, so we have to keep that in mind also."

Whoever takes the snaps will be going up against a very good Tennessee defense. In spite of their offensive woes, the Vols are sixth in the SEC in scoring defense and pass defense (17.6 points per game, 22nd in the nation, and 173.4 yards per game, 20th in the nation) and fourth in total defense, giving up just 279.4 yards per game (14th in the nation).

"They're one of the best defenses year in and year out," Spurrier said, "and they are again this year, so it will be a challenge for our guys."

In that respect, Tennessee is very much like the Gamecocks. Carolina's defense is among the nation's elite, outranking the Vols in every major category except rushing defense. The Gamecocks lead the SEC in total defense and pass defense (256.1 yards per game, 4th in the country, and 140.4 yards per game, third in the country, respectively). The Gamecocks are fourth in the SEC in scoring defnse (16.1 points per game, 15th in the nation) and seventh in the conference in rushing defense (115.8 yards per game, 36th in the nation).

"As far as ranking in the conference, I was trying to figure out if our defense had ever ranked better than our offense," Spurrier said, thinking back to his days at Florida and Duke. "I really can't remember a year, maybe there was someone back in the ‘90s. Ellis [Johnson] has come in here, and our defensive coaches have put together a strong defense. They know what they're doing, and they've been very good."

Spurrier is on his third quarterback of the season, but Fulmer is not much better, starting his second quarterback of the season. Sophomore Nick Stephens will make his fifth career start after replacing the ineffective Jonathan Crompton. For the Gamecocks' quarterback, whoever it may be, the key will be to cut down on mistakes and do a better job of recognizing defenses.

"When the quarterbacks are not throwing the ball away it reflects on the o-line," Spurrier said. "Quarterbacks have to get rid of the ball. Back in high school, [Stephen] would look down the field and if he didn't throw it he'd take off running. Unfortunately, he's got to break that habit. You've got to throw it away or find somebody. You can't just go down with it for an eight yard sack. The ability to dodge people is very helpful. Stephen can do that and he can break arm tackles and get free. We're not discouraging him from running occasionally, we're just encouraging him to get rid of the ball at times. With the rules in college football now, you can run four yards [to the side] and throw it across the line [of scrimmage]; it's all you've got to do [to avoid a sack]."

Locating and avoiding strong safety Eric Berry will be the biggest decision Garcia or Smelley will face. The sophomore Berry has been one of the biggest defensive playmakers in the SEC this season. He already holds the conference record for career return yards, with 397 yards on 10 picks (five interceptions this season). He leads the Vols in interceptions and passes defended, and is second on the team in tackles and sacks.

"Eric Berry seems to have a knack for finding the ball, or the ball finds him," said Spurrier. "As a defensive back he gets his hands on it a lot. They move him around. He reminds us a little bit of Ko Simpsons. Ko Simpson was a defensive back that could get his hands on loose balls a lot."

Even though Tennessee is struggling this year, and the Gamecocks are clear favorites in this game, there is still something special about the Vols coming to town. The jersey still carries a level of prestige that Carolina aspires to, so the Gamecocks are fired up to try to notch just their third win in 17 tries since joining the SEC.

"I certainly think so," Spurrier agreed. "We've only beaten them twice since South Carolina joined the conference, so we're way behind in the standings with Tennessee. It would be very good to beat the teams that have beaten you a bunch, that's for sure."

Fulmer has long been a punching bag for Spurrier, going back to the latter's days at Florida. Spurrier, of course, once famously said of his dominance over Tennessee, "You can't spell ‘Citrus' without ‘UT,'" referring to the second-tier bowl the Vols were playing in as opposed to the Gators' top-tier bowls. These days, Spurrier is not tossing any zingers toward his counterpart. When asked about the embattled Fulmer's job status, Spurrier took the diplomatic approach.

"I've got my own problems right here, trying to score a touchdown or two," he said, evading the question. "He got a new contract last year, so I thought certainly Coach Fulmer would be safe for a couple of years to come. I don't know anything more than that."


Notes:

- Running back Brian Maddox remains sidelined by a knee injury. "He still hasn't practiced," said Spurrier. "He had a couple games where nothing much good happened, and when you've got three or four running backs you just keep trying all of them and see who can make a run. He'll get his chance again."

- Tight end Jared Cook was expected to practice Tuesday, making it likely he will be able to play Saturday. "He's got a sprained foot that should be ok by Saturday night," Spurrier reported.

- Spurrier dismissed any talk of Ryan Succop's abdominal strain affecting his kicking ability. "He's healthy," said Spurrier. "He was kicking well yesterday, and we've got to believe it will carry over."

- Spurrier sounded less optimistic Tuesday that guard Jamon Meredith would be able to contribute. Meredith is hampered by a sprained ankle, and Lemuel Jeanpierre and Terrence Campbell will be the starting guards. "He should be able to suit up, and maybe if one of the guards gets hurt he could be able to help out a bit," said Spurrier. "I doubt if he'll be able to start and play much."


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