By Nicholas DeLorenzo, Associate College Football Editor
GAME NOTES: The 11th-ranked South Carolina Gamecocks will attempt to extend their winning streak to five games on Saturday afternoon when they visit the Tennessee Volunteers for an SEC Eastern Division battle.
After losing at nationally-ranked Georgia on Sept. 7 (41-30), South Carolina has responded well with four consecutive victories, with its latest arguably its most impressive as it kicked off a three-game road swing with a dominating 52-7 win over Arkansas last weekend. With both Florida and Georgia losing last week, the Gamecocks are now tied for second in the SEC East at 3-1 behind only unbeaten Missouri, with an Oct. 26 date against the Tigers still on tap.
"We knew going into this stretch it was going to be a tough three weeks in the SEC, starting with Arkansas," South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw said. "We knew we had to have a tough mentality, playing on the road, and we really didn't have that here two years ago. So we wanted to come in here and make a statement."
Tennessee has beaten the teams it was supposed to this season, claiming wins against Austin Peay (45-0), Western Kentucky (52-20) and South Alabama (31-24), but thanks to one of the most difficult schedules in the nation, it currently sits at 3-3 and 0-2 in conference. The Vols have already lost to Oregon, Florida and Georgia and still have games against nationally-ranked foes Alabama, Missouri and Auburn left on the schedule.
"They bring it everyday and you guys don't see what I see," head coach Butch Jones said about his squad. "I see a coming together of a football team, a football program. This team has become closer than any team I've been a part of and they hurt, but we're going to keep grinding. That's the only way I know how to do it and that's the only way they're going to know how to do it."
The Vols have a convincing 22-7-2 advantage over the Gamecocks in the all-time series, but South Carolina has had the upper hand of late with three straight wins.
The South Carolina offense (34.5 ppg, 486.5 ypg) have proven to be one of the SEC's most balanced units, ranking in the top-five in the SEC in both passing (260.8 ypg) and rushing (225.7 ypg), thanks largely to the success of its dual-threat quarterback.
Connor Shaw has been nearly flawless this season, completing 68.5 percent of his passes while having yet to throw an interception on 124 attempts. He has passed for 1,146 yards, run for 319 yards, and accounted for 12 total touchdowns.
Mike Davis has taken to the featured back role rather smoothly in his sophomore season. On 111 carries, he leads the SEC in both rushing yards (742) and touchdowns (nine), and he is fresh off a 128-yard performance in last week's win. Davis is also a reliable target for Shaw out of the backfield, hauling in 15 passes for 185 yards.
Bruce Ellington has a team-high 21 receptions for 332 yards and three touchdowns. Nick Jones (18 receptions, 191 yards, three TDs) and Damiere Byrd (15 receptions, 263 yards, two TDs) are also in the midst of solid campaigns.
While the Gamecocks' defensive stats appear strong (22.7 ppg, 345.5 ypg), the unit has not lived up to lofty preseason expectations. A big reason for that is the poor performance of Jadeveon Clowney (2.0 sacks in five games), who stirred up controversy after pulling himself from the Kentucky game on Oct. 5, but he returned in last week's contest and claims that he is as committed as ever to his team.
"When I got back, I told those guys, 'Listen, we ain't letting up,'" Clowney said. "Everybody's talking about us right now -- me. I'm just going to turn out. Let's just have fun out there. So I told them, let's all get together and have fun today, just come out and put 11 hats on the ball and just play D."
Kelcy Quarles has picked up the slack for the underperforming Clowney by recording 4.0 sacks and a fumble recovery. Jimmy Legree and Victor Hampton have two interceptions apiece, while Legree leads the team with 27 total tackles.
Tennessee's offense has performed well this season by scoring 31.7 ppg, thanks mostly to a rushing attack that generates 211.0 ypg.
After picking up 148 yards and two touchdowns in the showdown with Georgia, Rajion Neal now has 616 rushing yards and seven touchdowns this season, to go along with his solid work as a receiver (14 receptions), and his strong efforts have not gone unnoticed by his coach.
"Rajion Neal's a warrior," Jones said. "He's playing like we expect our seniors to play. He's giving us everything he has. He's been injured and he's been a warrior. He's added another spark to us."
Marlin Lane (280 yards, four TDs) has also been a crucial component to the backfield equation, but he is listed as questionable for this contest with a foot injury.
The situation under center has been murky for the Vols. Despite throwing for nine touchdowns, Justin Worley has not been very efficient in passing for just 156.7 ypg with six interceptions on 55.8 percent completions. Nathan Peterman has seen time as well, but he has done little to provoke a switch (10-of-23, 45 yards, zero TDs, two INTs).
Alton Howard has 15 receptions for a team-high 218 yards and two scores to go along with 75 rushing yards, but he also coughed up a critical fumble in overtime to allow Georgia to kick the game-winning field goal.
Defensively, the Vols have been vulnerable against the pass (240.8 ypg), which has resulted in a lackluster scoring defense (28.0 ppg), but the unit makes up for a lot of its shortcomings by forcing 15 turnovers, which is tied for 12th- most nationally.
A.J. Johnson leads the team with 47 tackles, while Brian Rudolph has 44 stops to go with three interception. Brent Brewer also has a pair of picks, while Cameron Sutton (21 tackles) has an interception and a fumble recovery to go with six passes defended.
Tennessee appears to be a more balanced team under Jones than it has been in previous seasons, but its disappointing quarterback play against a front seven that can wreak havoc in the backfield with the best of them is a recipe for disaster. The Vols will also have difficulty forcing turnovers against an offense that simply doesn't make many mistakes, meaning the Gamecocks should emerge with their fifth straight victory.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: South Carolina 31, Tennessee 21
10/16 10:40:36 ET
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