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Show Me My Opponent: South Carolina

(waking up from post-dinner nap that I immediately regret)

Whah…uh…hello. Wait, why are you here?

(Mr. Warren’s assistant reminds him that it’s a game week.)

You sure about that? I haven’t heard anything about a game this weekend.

(The assistant reads off the schedule: October 14, at home, against South Carolina.)

Wait, really? No one seems to be talking about it or care about it much. Why’s that again?

(Warren realizes Tennessee lost 41-0 to Georgia.)

Oh, right. So South Carolina, huh? Will Muschamp’s still there, I guess. They beat NC State, so they’re decent, right?

(The assistant reminds Mr. Warren that South Carolina lost to Kentucky, should’ve lost to Louisiana Tech, and probably should’ve lost that NC State game, too.)

Good God almighty. So this is a noon SEC Network kick, right?

(This is a noon ESPN kick, right.)

GOOD GOD. They’re putting this on ESPN?!?!?!?

(They’re putting this on ESPN.)

Alright. Whatever. Did Butch Jones say anything stupid this week while removing his boat from Duncan Boat Dock?

(Well, he said leadership reps are as important as practice rep–)


ALRIGHT LET’S DO THIS. On the “best bye week” in program history, Tennessee’s quarterback threatened to transfer (he’s holding out for the next coach, but the odds are slim he stays), Butch Jones continued his diarrhea-of-the-mouth routine, an offensive lineman who should be starting transferred out, a huge locker room fight happened, and the locker room divide grows greater. Oh and they play a 4-2 SEC team in a few days! Keep pumping that sunshine, 990.

I’ll be honest: I haven’t had much motivation to write this preview. South Carolina isn’t very good and could easily be 2-4; Tennessee isn’t very good and probably should be 2-3. The crowd will, in all likelihood, be pretty crappy. They have no reason to be better, given the quality of the play on the field. It took all of six weeks of the college football season for Butch Jones to completely lose control of his team, his job, and his mind. I’d guess this is a new program record. Give Jones credit – he breaks some sort of record or streak every single season.

Plus, there’s not much to write about from a job security or importance perspective. Multiple people around the program have told me in the last week that Butch went from fired after LSU to fired after the next loss. Whether that’s this game or Alabama, Brady Hoke will probably be the head coach for Kentucky. Whatever. As someone with Michigan ties, I despise Brady Hoke. I deserve this. (Larry Scott was a hammerlock for this role as late as August before the offense shattered into a million tiny pieces.)

As of this writing, you can get two tickets in section NN, row 17 (normally a $70 ticket for an average SEC game, surely $130+ for big games) for $35. That includes fees. If you want to subject yourself to a game between two mediocre-to-bad teams with bad offenses, do it. Have fun. Take the kids and let them know this isn’t how it should be. I, personally, might watch a quarter or two. The high on Saturday is supposed to be about 82 degrees, with partly cloudy skies. It’ll be one of the last truly warm days of the year. If you want to join me on Knoxville’s greenway system during the game, you’re more than welcome to.


Don’t be fooled by basic stats

Jake Bentley should be a true freshman in college. He beat Tennessee last year. He’s got a 3:1 TD:INT ratio this season. He completes over 60% of his passes. He’s #3 in yards per game in the SEC. And he’s still not all that good.

Based on numbers from Sport Source Analytics, 26 of Bentley’s 188 pass attempts (13.8%) have either been deflected or intercepted. That’s the eighth-best rate in the SEC – not bad – but also not very impressive when you consider his immediate surrounding quarterbacks are Austin Allen (12.8%), Danny Etling (15.2%), and Feleipe Franks (16.4%). (Jarrett Stidham leads the conference by a mile at 6.4%; Quinten Dormady and Nick Fitzgerald (!) sit at the bottom at 23.4% and 25%). Considering just four of those balls have been intercepted, we can say Bentley’s fairly lucky to have not thrown another interception or two.

Even by some basic stats, Bentley is fairly average: 9th in the SEC in QB rating (12th in ESPN’s opponent-adjusted Total QBR metric), 9th in yards per attempt, and an utterly frightening third down performance of a 97.27 QB rating (10th) and 5.6 yards per attempt (12th). Bentley himself has talent; it just isn’t nearly as developed as some people are begging you to believe. Of course, it’s not all his fault.

One good running back and one very bad offensive line

Let’s take a look at some numbers:

  • Rico Dowdle, South Carolina’s starting running back, has 187 yards on 56 carries.
  • Ty’Son Williams (great name), his co-starter/backup, has 281 yards on 49 carries.
  • Dowdle does not have a gain of longer than ten yards on the season. Williams has eight.
  • Dowdle has more carries in four of six games.

HOW HARD CAN THIS BE?!?!? I am NOT going to let you people get away with Will Muschamp Is Actually Good again. Good God almighty. I’m mad. Alright, so Dowdle sucks, but Williams seems to be pretty solid:

However, South Carolina’s offensive line isn’t aiding any of this, and they aren’t helping Bentley, either. They’ve given up 16 (!) sacks (109th in America). Let’s translate that for Gamecock running backs: 32 stuffs (gains of zero or negative yards) through six games (83rd nationally), including 22 tackles for loss allowed through four conference games (13th of 14 in the SEC, just ahead of Kentucky). Whatever positive progress Williams and Bentley can make is severely restricted by this line.

No more Deebo, but Hayden Hurst still here

Hurst is a pretty darn good tight end, and he leads South Carolina’s current starting group in yards per catch (15.6) and catch rate (63.3%). Without Samuel, this group as a whole is far less notable, but Hurst is still able to stretch the field. If Tennessee wants to win (jury still out), it’ll be on these linebackers, again, to stop a good tight end.


Hey, this defensive line’s not bad!

I’m serious! Their havoc rate ranks 35th nationally (not bad). They’re about average in run stuffs and backfield pressure, but two key defensive linemen are great on the ground: D.J. Wonnum and Taylor Stallworth. Both have seven run stuffs each on the year, with Stallworth holding a 9.7% opponent success rate (insanely good). Dante Sawyer (three forced fumbles) is very good, too. I have a feeling we haven’t seen the best game from this group yet.

Skai Moore!

He’ll be the best defensive player on the field Saturday. I fear a career performance.

The pass defense…???

This unit has actually been very bad: 108th in opponent success rate, 13th in the SEC in opponent completion rate, 101st in DB havoc rate, etc. However, they haven’t given up many points because they don’t give up many big plays. The Cocks rank 16th nationally in opponent passing game explosion – they give up a ton of 0-19 yard gains, but not that many at 20+ yards. Tennessee can barely pass the ball to get to second and six, so I doubt this is a factor.

Special Teams

Jesus this is ugly

South Carolina’s two kickers (Parker White and Alexander Woznick) have combined to go 5 for 14 on field goals this year. FIVE FOR 14!!!!!! How?!? How are you an SEC school with kickers that go 5 for 14? How?

Otherwise, nothing much to get here – Rashad Fenton’s the best kick returner on the team but has only fielded three kickoffs.


Look: neither you nor I are under the illusion of this being an important game in any way. Tennessee can’t save Butch Jones by beating South Carolina. Butch Jones almost certainly cannot save Butch Jones at this point. Whether you like it or not, a coaching search will be underway shortly. We need to talk about something larger: Tennessee’s schedule the rest of the way, and why a program reset in-season has become absolutely necessary.

I’m going to show you a chart. This is just one site, but it’s Bill Connelly’s S&P+ projections, and he has some of the very best on the entire internet. This is how he projects the rest of Tennessee’s season.

At this pace – and I feel comfortable saying this – Tennessee will not be a double-digit favorite in a single game left on the schedule. Not against Southern Miss, Missouri, or Vanderbilt. None. Your time has long passed. In fact, by this same metric, Tennessee was a 19 point favorite preseason against Southern Miss. That’s a 17.5 point shift in six weeks.

What matters about that is the following: yes, Tennessee will (likely) be favored in four or five of these remaining seven. If played straight to the bill, that’s a 7-5 or 8-4 season. Sure! But with the team’s trend under Butch Jones, we need to remind you of this: Tennessee is not going to go 5-1 in coin flip games. Jones’ record in these is slightly under 50%. If Tennessee went 3-3 in coin flips, that’s 6-6 with a team that was favored in nine of 12 games in the preseason. If Tennessee goes 2-4, you’re looking at the sixth five-win season in the last 13 years. This is unacceptable at the University of Tennessee.

By talent alone, Tennessee is at least a touchdown better than South Carolina. Considering South Carolina’s coach is Will Muschamp, they should be 13+ points better – yes, Muschamp is worth, on average, about -6 or so points a game. But Will Muschamp isn’t stupid or thick-headed enough to nearly force his starting quarterback to quit mid-week or have gigantic locker room divides in game six. If this is it, goodbye, please go to an anger management class or two, and call me if you need help packing – the Chick-Fil-A fry boxes have never failed me. South Carolina 21, Tennessee 17.

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