Vols Must Play Better to Beat S.C.

After dispatching the Gators in Gainesville, Tennessee goes into Saturday's contest against South Carolina with all it's preseason dreams and post-season goals intact. The last two times Tennessee knocked off Florida (in 1998 and 2001) it went to play for the SEC title.

However before those victories, the Vols, under the direction of Phillip Fulmer, only beat Florida in 1992. That was the same season in which Johnny Majors was recoverying from a heart bypass the first four games. When he returned, Tennessee had worked its way to No. 4 in the national rankings before a trio of heartbreaking defeats ended the Vols SEC title hopes. Majors, who refused to sign a contract extension during the offseason and took his dissatisfaction with the offer public, was forced to resign and Fulmer was hired as head coach.

So why are we rehashing painful history instead of talking about Saturday's contest? Well, that was the last time South Carolina beat Tennessee, scoring a 24-23 victory on Halloween in Columbia.

There's also a lesson to be learned from that experience. No. 1: It's a bad idea for head coaches to go into a season with an unsigned contract sitting on the table. After all, you never know what might happen during the year. No. 2: Tennessee was riding high and appeared to be a national title contender before a 25-24 home upset by Arkansas and a 17-10 loss to eventually national champion Alabama. Even after those defeats, Tennessee could have won the SEC East and got another shot at Alabama if it had taken care of business against South Carolina.

Those three defeats by a combined nine points were the only games Tennessee lost that season, as it went on to post a 9-3 record. Whether if was the distraction of Majors' return and the resulting tension or just a matter of losing a few breaks that caused the Vols' downfall is a question for the ages, but it does go to show that momentum is easier lost than gained, and its emotional impact can never be taken for granted.

A team that aspires to win championships is choosing to swim with the sharks, and if you want to be a shark you've got to constantly move forward or else die. Staying in the same position isn't an option. The caliber of a team's game is either improving or getting worse; it never stays the same.

Because it's simply not possible to be at an emotional peak every week, a team has to strive to execute better if it is going to improve. That will be a real test for Tennessee this week because, as pointed out in this week's Devil's Advocate, South Carolina is in an ideal position to pull a huge upset.

Undoubtedly, the Vols have a lot of room for improvement, a point which is underscored by personnel changes this week which include a new set of guards for the offensive line with Cody Douglas and Jason Respert replacing Chavis Smith and Anthony Herrera in the staring lineup, and Parys Haralson replacing Karlton Neal at strong side defensive end.

The changes in the offensive front is in recognition of the problems caused by the Gators defense last week, especially in a first half that saw the rivals fight to a virtual stalemate in the trenches.

South Carolina's defensive front is bigger and quite likely better than Florida's, which means Tennessee will have to perform better to develop any offensive consistency. That's the key match-up in this game because South Carolina's best chance of victory is to keep the score low and the clock moving. The Gamecocks don't appear equipped to win a shootout, although they do possess the capacity to produce the occasional big play. Combine that with a defense that is solid and it would only take a two turnover advantage for the Gamecocks to come out on top in this one.

The key for Tennessee is to establish control along the offensive front, gain an early lead and force South Carolina into a catch-up mode. If the Vols are successful, they can expect the Gamecocks to make mistakes because this just isn't their type of game.

Tennessee also needs to push the pace of the game and set a tone with its special team's play. South Carolina may not be able to play power football alone and win this contest, but throw in a few big plays on offense or in the return game and they will be difficult to beat.

The guess here is that Tennessee's depth and superior play at quarterback will neutralize Lou Holtz's best laid plans. The preemptive personnel moves are a good indication that UT's coaching staff is anticipating problems and making the appropriate adjustments.

Prediction: Tennessee 31, South Carolina 18

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