By Scott Hood, GamecockCentral.com
What: No. 11 South Carolina (5-1) at Tennessee (3-3)
Where: Neyland Stadium (102,455), Knoxville, Tenn
When: Saturday, noon
TV/Radio: ESPN (Dave Pasch, Brian Griese, Tom Luginbill)
South Carolina travels to the Smokey Mountains for the middle game of a three-game SEC road swing when they square off with Tennessee in a SEC Eastern Division clash on Saturday afternoon at Neyland Stadium. USC looks to extend its winning streak to five games and remain a factor in the divisional race, while Tennessee eyes its initial conference win in Butch Jones' debut season as head coach. The Gamecocks have won three straight games over the Vols. Will they make it four? If they do, USC becomes bowl eligible for an unprecedented ninth straight season under Steve Spurrier.
USC OFFENSE v. TENNESSEE DEFENSE:
Just when the seemingly unstoppable USC offense doesn't need any more help, sophomore wide receiver Shaq Roland returns from a three-game suspension and will dress out for Saturday's game, immediately becoming the Gamecocks' best 'tall receiver' threat.
Combine Roland with Bruce Ellington (team-high 21 receptions for 332 yards and three touchdowns), Damiere Byrd (emerging as USC's best deep threat) and Nick Jones (18 receptions for 191 yards), quarterback Connor Shaw has plenty of downfield weapons to catch his laser beam throws.
Ellington missed some practice time with an injury this week, but was close to full go in Thursday's workout, so he should be ready to play.
Is any SEC quarterback playing better than Shaw right now? Shaw has completed 36-of-48 passes of his passes (75.0 percent) for 481 yards and four touchdowns in the last two games since walking off the field at UCF with an apparent shoulder injury. For the season, Shaw has connected on 68.5 percent of his throws (85-of-124) for 1,146 yards and 10 touchdowns and zero interceptions in guiding the USC offense to unparalleled heights with an average of 486.5 yards per game.
His status as the lone starting quarterback in the SEC yet to throw a pick in 2013 could be challenged by a Tennessee defense with 11 interceptions in six games, second only to Missouri (13) in the SEC. However, five of those picks came against an error-prone Western Kentucky offense on September 7, so they have six interceptions in the other five games.
Last season, the Vols had 12 interceptions in 12 games. But this season, Tennessee has intercepted a pass on 5.42 percent of defensive plays this season, the best rate in the SEC and eighth-best rate nationally. True freshman cornerback Cameron Sutton walked on campus and quickly earned a starting job.
If USC maintains the current offensive pace (486.5 ypg), they would shatter the school record for most average yards of total offense by a comfortable margin. However, all those yards don't come through the air.
Bolstered in large part by sophomore Mike Davis, the SEC's leading rusher, the Gamecock ground game is contributing 225.7 yards per game to that impressive total at the halfway mark, giving USC as balanced an offense as you'll find anywhere in terms of production.
Davis and Shon Carson (career-high 56 yards at Arkansas), filling in for the injured Brandon Wilds, will try to run against a big Tennessee defensive front seven led by mammoth nose tackle Daniel McCullers and middle linebacker A.J. Johnson, a preseason All-SEC First Team selection by the media. Johnson has double figure tackles in 15 of his 30 career games, and 265 in all. Last year, he led the SEC with 138 tackles.
However, in spite of Johnson's impressive exploits, Tennessee is 11th in the SEC in rushing defense (175.7 ypg), as well as 11th in total defense (416.5 ypg) and 10th in passing defense (240.8 ypg). Granted, the Vols are better defensively this season under new defensive coordinator John Jancek, but they still struggle to contain opposing offenses.
In the last five games, Tennessee has surrendered 457.6 yards per game. Eliminate the Oregon game (687 yards in total offense) from the equation and the Vols are still yielding 400.3 yards per game.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Connor Shaw, RB Mike Davis, RB Shon Carson, WR Bruce Ellington, WR Damiere Byrd, TE Busta Anderson, LT Corey Robinson, RT Brandon Shell.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DT Daniel McCullers, DE Corey Miller, DE Jacques Smith, MLB A.J. Johnson, OLB Brent Brewer, CB Justin Coleman, CB Cameron Sutton.
1. USC RB Mike Davis vs. UT MLB A.J. Johnson;
2. USC WR Bruce Ellington and WR Damiere Byrd vs. UT CB Justin Coleman and CB Cameron Sutton;
3. USC C Clayton Stadnik v. UT DT Daniel McCullers.
COACH'S COMMENT: "It's always fun for our team to go to the largest stadium and play a team with the tradition of Tennessee. That's what we are doing this Saturday. Hopefully, our guys can keep improving a bit. We did play better last week against Arkansas. There is still a lot of room for improvement" - USC head coach Steve Spurrier.
TENNESSEE OFFENSE v. USC DEFENSE:
The last time the USC defense saw Tennessee quarterback Justin Worley, he was making his first career start as a true freshman against the Gamecocks in 2011. However, things went awry for the Palmetto State product that night as the Vols' offense mustered only a field goal.
Worley sat behind Tyler Bray last season before emerging as the winner of a four-way battle for the starting job in preseason camp. In six games (five starts) this season, Worley has thrown for 940 yards on 82-of-147 passing for a 55.8 completion percentage with nine touchdowns and six interceptions. However, his efficiency rating of 121.5 is lowest among SEC starting quarterbacks.
Worley is well-protected by a senior-dominated offensive line rated among the finest in the country at the beginning of the season, although the best of the group might be junior left tackle Antonio 'Tiny' Richardson, one of the top players at his position in the country and a surefire first-round draft pick next April. Just like last year, Saturday's battle between Richardson and USC DE Jadeveon Clowney is highly anticipated by NFL scouts.
Will Tennessee let Richardson try to block Clowney one-one-one or will the Vols, similar to every other Gamecock opponent this season, chip him with an extra back or tight end or move an additional blocker to that side of the field?
When he throws the ball, Worley spreads the ball to a number of receivers, four of whom have between 10 and 18 receptions. True freshman Marquez North (6-foot-4, 215 pounds) leads with 18 receptions for 179 yards and one touchdown.
Tennessee's average per passing attempt (5.8 yards) - a key indication of the effectiveness of a passing attack - is the lowest in the SEC, while their completion percentage (54.1 percent) is ahead of only Arkansas in the conference ratings. The Vols are 11th in passing offense with an average of 164.2 yards per game through the air.
Tennessee, which prefers to run the inside zone and spread the field, is one of eight SEC schools averaging greater than 200 yards per game on the ground. Rajion Neal's 616 rushing yards is fourth highest in the SEC and his 80 rushing attempts is third most in the conference. Marlin Lane (280 yards) provides relief when Neal comes out of the game. Neal had 148 yards and two touchdowns against Georgia on Oct. 5.
USC started a new look secondary last week at Arkansas, but free safety Chaz Elder suffered a concussion and will miss at least one game, handing the starting job to Kadetrix Marcus or T.J. Gurley. Victor Hampton worked himself back into the good graces of the defensive coaches with an interception early in the Arkansas game.
The Gamecocks got a double dose of good news on Thursday when outside linebacker Skai Moore returned 'full go' to practice, while defensive tackle J.T. Surratt did enough to warrant playing time on Saturday. However, Gerald Dixon Jr. could earn the start there next to Kelcy Quarles.
In spite of the relentless criticism the defense has received for its fourth-quarter performances, the Gamecocks are No. 3 in the SEC in total defense (345.5 yards per game), No. 4 in pass defense (202.7) and fifth in rushing defense (142.8) and scoring defense (22.7). In short, they're top five in the conference in all four major statistical categories.
KEY OFFENSIVE PLAYERS: QB Justin Worley, RB Rajion Neal, WR Marquez North, WR Pig Howard, LT Antonio Richardson, RT Ja'Wuan James.
KEY DEFENSIVE PLAYERS: DE Jadeveon Clowney, DE Chaz Sutton, DT Kelcy Quarles, MLB T.J. Holloman, OLB Marcquis Roberts, OLB Skai Moore, CB Jimmy Legree, CB Victor Hampton, SS Brison Williams.
1. UT LT Antonio Richardson v. USC DE Jadeveon Clowney.
2. UT QB Justin Worley and RB Rajion Neal v. MLB T.J. Holoman and OLB Marquis Roberts OR OLB Skai Moore.
3. UT WR Marquez North v. USC CB Victor Hampton.
COACH'S COMMENT: "That is the big thing, containing their entire offense. We can't give up big plays, whether it is running the football or deep touchdown passes or big splash plays. It is really the same formula every game. In the SEC we play explosive offenses and defenses every week and very talented football teams" - Tennessee head coach Butch Jones
Quarterback - Edge to USC
Running Back - Slight edge to USC
Wide Receiver - Slight edge to USC
Offensive Line - Even
Tight End - Edge to USC
Defensive Line - Edge to USC
Linebacker - Edge to Tennessee
Secondary - Edge to Tennessee
Special Teams - Slight edge to Tennessee
SYNOPSIS: Even though Tennessee leads the all-time series, 22-7-2, USC has turned the tables on the proud Vols program in the five years, winning four times and supplanting Tennessee among the 'Big Three' of the SEC Eastern Division. Coaching chaos has contributed mightily to UT's downfall with four head coaches since 2008. Given time, Butch Jones should restore the pride into the Tennessee program, but three years of Derek Dooley are too much to overcome in one season. Tennessee does have some athletes on both sides of the ball, but so do the Gamecocks and their roster is probably deeper. The biggest advantage for USC lies at the quarterback spot, where Connor Shaw is clicking on all cylinders at the moment and is unquestionably the most underrated signal caller in the SEC. Justin Worley, meanwhile, is still trying to find his way as a regular starter in the SEC.
PREDICTION: USC scored only 14 points on their last visit to Knoxville, but that game came in Shaw's sophomore season when he has just been named the permanent starter following the dismissal of Stephen Garcia. Shaw is a much better quarterback than that crisp night in 2011. Worley, obviously, is a better quarterback as well, but Shaw is simply executing at s different level as a senior. Everything is flowing smoothly for the Gamecock offense right now, especially on third down (52.9 conversion percentage) and while Tennessee is strong up the middle on defense at nose tackle and middle linebacker, it's doubtful they have enough answers. Shaq Roland's return from a three-game suspension should boost the passing game even more. USC is 11-4 in their last 15 true road contests, so they've proven they can win in hostile environments. The four losses all came to opponents ranked No. 11 or higher in the national polls. When is the last time Tennessee beat a ranked opponent? 2009. Their last win over a Top 15 team? 2007. Over the past four seasons, the Vols have lost 10 straight games to ranked opponents. Make it 11.
The Pick: USC 31, Tennessee 21