For the first time since Butch Jones took over at Tennessee, he won't be staring at Steve Spurrier on the opposite sideline when his team faces off against South Carolina. The Head Ball Coach resigned as head coach Oct. 13, opening the job and promoting co-offensive coordinator Shawn Elliott to interim head coaching duty for the rest of the 2015 season.
While there won't be any drastic schematic changes in South Carolina's style of play since Spurrier's departure, Jones does see a renewed energy since Elliott took over.
"Coach Spurrier is a legend. He’s done a great job, but I think Coach Elliott has come in and given them a change," Jones said. "(He's) given them some energy, probably not worried about making mistakes. I’ve kind of tried put myself in that frame of mind on how you would handle it. I think the coaching staff has done a great job of handling a very, very difficult situation."
Elliott is 1-1 since taking over, beating Vanderbilt in his first game before losing 35-28 to Texas A&M. The third-year Tennessee head coach has seen a reinvigorated team playing like it has nothing to lose coming into the last stretch of its schedule that begins with the Vols in Knoxville.
"South Carolina comes in here as a very hungry football team," Jones said. "Coach Elliott has done a really good job of infusing energy and excitement. They are playing loose. They are a hungry football team."
But it will take more than hunger for South Carolina to stop the ground machine Jones has built on offense. The Gamecocks are the worst statistical rushing defense in the SEC, relinquishing 215 rushing yards per game and the third-most rushing touchdowns (16) in the league. That bodes well for running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, as well as Josh Dobbs, who is coming into the game after watching Texas A&M dual threat QB Kyler Murray dice the Gamecocks up for 223 passing yards and 156 rushing yards.
“I just think Josh Dobbs is doing nothing but getting better every single game,” offensive coordinator Mike DeBord said. “I see it in his footwork. I see it in his throws. I see it in his decision-making. I see it in all that. We're really happy with him."
South Carolina's offense is more dynamic than it's defense, highlighted by star athlete Pharoh Cooper, who has 44 receptions on the season and averages 76 yards per game in the air. Outside of Cooper, however, the Gamecocks have been marred in mediocrity. The quarterback situation has been a carousel rotating between Connor Mitch, Perry Orth and Lorenzo Nunez. Orth will likely start, but Nunez — a freshman who passed and rushed for a combined five touchdowns on the year — will look to take some pressure of Cooper as a versatile offensive weapon.
"We can do a lot with him," Elliott said of Nunez. "He is one of those players you can line up anywhere and have an instant chance to make a big play with.
The offensive line made Myles Garrett a footnote in South Carolina's loss to Texas A&M with two sacks, and a Vols pass rush that has finally hit its stride will present another unique set of challenges for a unit that has allowed 17 sacks on the year.
“We have impacted the quarterback a little bit more, and I think it comes down to the play at the defensive end positions," Jones said of his defensive line. "We have to continue to get more push internally from the defensive tackle position. We’re using our hands better. We’re getting off. We’re staying ahead of the chains. When we bring some five-man pressures, we’re able to get home."
There's no doubt Tennessee owns virtually every statistical advantage over its SEC Eastern Division rival, but after squeaking out two consecutive wins over South Carolina teams that could boast the same at the time of defeat, he knows it's still going to be a slugfest in Neyland Stadium Saturday afternoon.
"I see a football team that, offensively, has big play ability at every position," Jones said of South Carolina. "Defensively, they're big and active ... It will be a great challenge for us."