Tennessee begins the easy part of its football schedule Saturday night at 7:15 (ESPN2) against South Carolina in Columbia.
Just don’t tell UT coach Butch Jones this is the easy part of the schedule.
No. 18-ranked Tennessee (5-2, 2-2 SEC) opened as a 13.5-point favorite against South Carolina (3-4, 1-4) and will be favored the rest of the season against Tennessee Tech (3-5), Kentucky (4-3, 3-2), Missouri 2-5, 0-3) and Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-3).
Again, don’t tell Jones this stretch is easier than the first seven games – including the four SEC games against Florida, Georgia, Texas A&M, and Alabama before last Saturday’s open date.
“I really believe this five-week stretch is going to be more of a grind than the seven-week stretch that we just had,” Jones says.
“The great thing is our kids have been through it. You never know what it’s like until you’ve been through it, and they’re preparing, and it starts with South Carolina, which will be a great challenge. But the bye week and the rest came at the appropriate time.”
Why will the last five weeks would be a greater challenge than the first seven weeks – the last being a 49-10 loss to No. 1 Alabama two weeks ago at Neyland Stadium.
“First of all, we’re in a position where we haven’t been in – that everybody circles this game, and they’re going to judge their programs on how well they play against Tennessee, and just like we do,” Jones explains.
“There’s some defining games throughout the course of the season that you look towards. That’s football. That’s the way football is, and there’s a responsibility that comes along with that.
“Also, I think we’re playing teams that are gaining great momentum. Some of them have new coaches, so now kind of being a new coach is over with. They understand their systems. I think they’re playing much more confidently with it.”
Jones makes a good point: each of Tennessee’s last four league opponents would like nothing better than to spoil its hopes for an SEC East championship.
However, Tennessee’s last four SEC opponents have a combined record of 13-16, and they are a combined 5-12 in the SEC. Tennessee Tech (3-5) is an FBS team and is 3-3 in the Ohio Valley Conference.
The Vols have a chance to win the SEC East by winning out, but need Florida (5-1, 3-1) to lose one of its last four league games against either Georgia (4-3, 2-3), Arkansas (5-3, 1-3), South Carolina, or LSU 5-2, 3-1).
The Vols have a chance to win the SEC East by winning out, but need Florida (5-1, 3-1) to lose one of its last three league games against either Georgia (4-3, 2-3), Arkansas (5-3, 1-3) or South Carolina.
UT fans will be watching closely Saturday afternoon when Florida plays Georgia in Jacksonville.
Jones says he won’t be watching.
“Not paying attention at all,” Jones said. “All of our focus has to be on a very, very good South Carolina football team, and working to play our best game.
“We have not played our best football game yet. We’ve not played a complete football game. In terms of all three units, this is going to be a complimentary football game, so all of our focus is on South Carolina.”
South Carolina, however, isn’t what it was under former coach Steve Spurrier.
The Gamecocks played in nine bowl games with Spurrier in charge from 2005 to 2014. Spurrier, the former Florida coach, resigned amid the 2015 season and missed the five-game losing streak that left South Carolina with a 3-9 record.
To replace Spurrier this year, South Carolina hired former Florida coach Will Muschamp, who was fired with two games left in the 2014 season. He was 28-21 at Florida, 17-15 in the SEC, and 4-0 against Tennessee.
Muschamp, the defensive coordinator at Auburn last year, got off to a big start with South Carolina when it beat Vanderbilt, 13-10, in the season opener in Nashville.
It’s been a struggle since.
The Gamecocks lost four of their next five games (the win was 20-15 against East Carolina) and they’re coming off a 34-28 victory over UMass (1-7).
Jones, however, doesn’t see the easy part of the schedule starting Saturday.
“South Carolina is a really good football team,” Jones said. “All you have to do is look at them defensively and their statistics speak for themselves. Offensively they’re explosive. They do a great job of distributing the football. They can create big plays. They don’t turn the football over offensively. It’s going to be a challenge.”
3 matchups to watch
Vols run vs. Gamecocks ‘D’
Tennessee will be without junior running back Alvin Kamara against South Carolina.
Kamara, who suffered a knee injury against Alabama, is the Vols’ second leading rusher (313 yards, 4.9 average) and is tied for the team-high in catches (22) for 260 yards. He has three rushing touchdowns and three TD catches and is the Vols’ top punt returner (18 returns for 10.2-yard average).
“He won’t be available this week, but everything that’s come back, right now we do anticipate (Kamara) being back in a couple of weeks, so that’s very, very encouraging,” Jones pointed out.
“I know he’s upbeat and positive. Now how does the body heal? But as of right now he does not need surgery, and we’re anticipating him being back in the next week or two and that’s very encouraging for us.”
Tennessee is 10th in the SEC in rushing yards per game (169.6) after being held to 32 yards on 32 carries against Alabama.
South Carolina is 10th in the SEC in rushing yards allowed per game (211.1).
With Kamara out, sophomore John Kelly will get an increase in carries behind leading rusher Jalen Hurd (438 yards), former Hendersonville Beech star.
Kelly rushed for 89 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries against Texas A&M when Hurd was out with an injury.
Jones said freshman Carlin Fils-Aime likely will get an increase in carries while Kamara is out.
“Carlin’s going to have to play reps,” Jones noted. “He’s going to have to play reps. He’s going to have to play and we’re going to need him. He’s going through that maturation process, that constancy of performance that all freshmen go through of understanding the intensity it takes to perform at this level day in and day out.”
Samuel vs. Vols’ secondary
Problems with the Gamecocks’ offense were widespread through the first half of the season, and a primary one was the absence of wide receiver Deebo Samuel.
Samuel suffered a hamstring injury in the second play of the second game, a 27-14 loss to Mississippi State, missed all of the next three games, and was limited against Georgia.
Against UMass, Samuel had eight catches for 108 yards and had two carries for 31 yards. He’s got 16 catches for 262 yards this season.
South Carolina already was limited with big-play potential entering this season – especially with the departure of All-SEC receiver Pharoh Cooper – and Samuel’s injury left the offense even more depleted.
Now that he’s back, Samuel should have the attention of Tennessee’s secondary, which has given up its share of big plays.
The Vols are sixth in the SEC in pass defense, allowing 207.7 yards per game, while the Gamecocks are sixth in passing yards per game at 210.6 each time out.
South Carolina is last in the conference in scoring at 16.9 points per game.
Dobbs vs. Gamecocks’ secondary
UT quarterback Joshua Dobbs has had some of his best moments against South Carolina – in particularly at Williams-Bryce Stadium.
Two years ago, Dobbs threw for 301 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 166 yards and three touchdowns in a 45-42 overtime victory in Columbia.
Tennessee trailed 42-28 late in the game. Dobbs scored on a 3-yard run with 1:50 left and threw a 9-yard touchdown pass to Jason Croom to tie the game at 42-all after Aaron Medley’s PAT kick.
Last year, Dobbs threw for 255 yards and two touchdowns and ran for 35 yards in the Vols’ 27-24 victory over the Gamecocks in Neyland Stadium.
South Carolina has been solid against the pass this year, ranking second in the SEC in yards allowed per game (183.6).
Tennessee is seventh in the league in passing yards per game (224.0).
5 Things to watch
It’s good news on the UT injury front this week – starting with the potential return of senior cornerback Cam Sutton this year.
Sutton, a preseason All-American, suffered a broken bone in his foot in the third game against Ohio and hasn’t played since.
“Everything I’m being told, he’ll only be out for a couple more weeks, so we’re anticipating him being back,” Jones said.
The Vols expect linebackers Darrin Kirkland Jr. and Cortez McDowell to return from injuries against South Carolina, along with offensive linemen Jashon Robertson, Dylan Wiesman and Brett Kendrick. Chance Hall also could return to the offensive front against the Gamecocks depending how his knee responded to treatment during the week.
“Offensive front, everyone should be ready to go, so we’re going to gain a lot of players back,” Jones said.
Tennessee will be without senior linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin (shoulder), along with freshman linebacker Quart’e Sapp (ACL) and sophomore defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie (pectoral tear).
Sophomore Shy Tuttle appears to be the starting defensive tackle with the injury to McKenzie, who got his first start against Alabama due to the dismissal of senior Danny O’Brien after the Texas A&M game.
Tuttle is making a recovery from a broken fibula suffered Oct. 10, 2015 against Georgia. He’s progressed each game this season and had two tackles in each game against Texas A&M and Alabama.
Against the Tide, Tuttle batted down a pass that resulted in an interception by Derek Barnett.
Jones said he’s met with Tuttle and they’ve talked about taking another move forward.
“We challenged him with his conditioning,” Jones added. “We challenged him in the weight room. He does have to pick up the intensity. He does have to pick up all the little things that it takes to be great, and he wants to do it. That’s what our jobs are as coaches to help him do it.
“I have no worries about Shy Tuttle. I think he’s going to be fine.”
Freshman quarterback Jake Bentley made his debut at quarterback for the Gamecocks against UMass and sparked the offense by throwing for 201 yards and two touchdowns on 17-of-26 passing.
Bentley, son of South Carolina running backs coach Bobby Bentley, is the third starting quarterback for the Gamecocks this year. Senior Perry Orth was the starter to begin the season, splitting time with freshman Brandon McIlwain, who played in the first two games and started the next three.
McIlwain was benched in favor of Orth in the fourth quarter of the Oct. 1 Texas A&M game (a 24-13 Aggies win), and Orth played every snap of the 28-14 loss to Georgia on Oct. 9.
During the bye week before the UMass game, Bentley spent time with his high school coach in Opelika, Alabama, and speculation about him starting grew when he was taking snaps with the first team last week.
Bentley enrolled at South Carolina in the summer after graduating early from Opelika High, where he would have been a senior this year. Now, he looks like the Gamecocks’ starter.
“I thought (Bentley) did a very, very good job (against UMass),” Jones said.
“He’s animated, he has great intensity, he can throw the football. I thought he managed the offense very well. He took care of the football. He looked like a mature competitor. He looked like a mature individual who had been there. You know his pedigree and his upbringing and all that. I was very impressed with the way he handled the game.”
Jones said the Vols needed a break after the first seven games. Perhaps it will lead to better starts in the Vols’ last five games.
Tennessee has been outscored 83-24 in the first quarters of its first seven games and by a 119-65 notch in first halves.
The Vols have salvaged their chances of winning the SEC East with comebacks. They are outscoring opponents 148-90 in the second halves – and 90-42 in the fourth quarters.
“I think this team and this football program was exhausted, and I’m not going to sit up here and tell you no because I’d be lying to you,” Jones said. “It was a seven-week grind, mentally, physically taxing, taking its toll on everyone in our organization. The bye week came at the most appropriate time.
“For us as coaches, we were out recruiting all week. I got back really early (last) Saturday morning, and it was great to sit around and be a fan in front of the TV, but take notes, watch other people play, kind of chart situational football, all that goes into it. It was great to take a break. And I know our players were energized.”
It was an emotional rollercoaster for the Vols before the open date.
They survived scares in their first two games against Appalachian State at Neyland Stadium and Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway, and after a home win over Ohio, broke an 11-game losing streak against Florida in their SEC opener.
Then the Vols beat Georgia on a last-play Hail Mary pass, rallied from a 28-7 deficit at Texas A&M before losing in overtime, and lost to Alabama for the 10th consecutive time.
Jones is 3-0 against South Carolina with the three wins coming by a combined eight points.
UT’s coach will remind his players not to take the Gamecocks lightly.
“I say it every week: If you don’t play in the conference or coach in this conference, you have no idea in terms of the grind that it is mentally and physically on every team, and every team is a good football team,” Jones added.
“There are no off weeks. There are no bad football teams in our conference, so that’s a responsibility of everyone in our organization to be able to play their best and coach their best week in and week out. That’s what you signed up for to come here and play in this conference.”
Dave Link is a freelance journalist living in Knoxville.