Establishing at least the threat of a ground game could be crucial this weekend against a South Carolina defense that allows opponents to complete a mere 46.5 percent of their passes (73 of 157). The Gamecocks rank 10th nationally in pass efficiency defense and eighth nationally in passing yards allowed (147.4 per game).
Led by All-America candidate Fred Bennett (9 passes defended, 2 interceptions), Carolina's stingy secondary is a major reason the Gamecocks rank 13th nationally in scoring defense. They have allowed an average of just 14.0 points through their first seven games, compared to 25.9 through the first seven games last year.
Alabama shut down Tennessee's ground game last weekend by putting eight men in the box and daring the Vols to pass. The Vols took that dare – throwing the ball 46 times and handing it to running backs just 18 times.
Guard Anthony Parker says the Tide stopped Tennessee's ground game with schemes, as well as numbers.
"They focused on stopping the run but there are a lot of things we didn't know we were going to get, so it was kind of a shock at first," Parker says. "You've got to know who you're blocking and take care of your job. No matter how many people you get (in the box), as long as there's enough people to block ‘em, we should be all right."
Even a month later, Parker remains embarrassed by Tennessee's negative rushing total in the Florida setback.
"The minus-11 in the Florida game … everybody knows about that," he says, frowning. "We work hard on the running game every week but there's still a lot of improvement to be made."
When an opponent puts eight men in the box – as Alabama did – you'd figure Tennessee's offense has little choice but to throw the football. Parker insists that isn't the case, however.
"You've got to be able to run the ball," he notes. "If you can't run it, they can still load up eight in the box, knowing you're going to pass, then drop everybody (into coverage). You've got to be able to run the ball, even when there are eight men in the box."
Although the Bama game was an ugly win, Parker thought the Vols benefited greatly from proving they can prevail when they aren't at their best.
"It's real important to have the confidence to know we can do that," he says. "We know we can do it now, and that will help us in the future."
Tennessee's chances of cranking up the ground game Saturday night against South Carolina suffered a blow earlier this week when it was announced that leading rusher LaMarcus Coker will be sidelined three to six weeks with a strained knee. Fortunately for the Vols, Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty are available to fill the void.
"It's great to have three running backs – LaMarcus Coker, Montario Hardesty and Arian Foster," Parker says. "If any one of them goes down, you've got two more who can step up and take care of business."