When: Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012. Time TBA.
Where: Columbia, S.C.
South Carolina at a glance:
Head coach: Steve Spurrier (8th season at South Carolina; 54-35 record)
All-time record: 555-542-44
Record vs. Tennessee: 6-22-2 (South Carolina has won the last 2)
Returning starters: 7 (offense), 6 (defense)
2011 overview: Quarterback Stephen Garcia was dismissed, star running back Marcus Lattimore (torn ACL) was lost midway through the season and All-SEC wide receiver Alshon Jeffery had half of his receiving production compared to 2010. All of that adversity makes it even more impressive that Spurrier and the Gamecocks put together their second consecutive 10-win season in 2011. It wasn’t always pretty. The Gamecocks struggled with out-of-conference foes Navy and East Carolina and dropped a winnable game at home against Auburn, costing them a chance at the SEC East crown. Those struggles don’t detract from gritty wins over rivals Florida, Georgia, Tennessee and Clemson. The Gamecocks finished the season on a high note, topping Nebraska 30-13 in the Capital One Bowl on Jan. 2.
Three matchups to watch in 2012:
1. USC running back Marcus Lattimore vs. Tennessee rushing defense
Lattimore was on pace for a huge 2011 campaign before it abruptly ended with a torn ACL on Oct. 15 at Mississippi State. The former five-star recruit already had more than 800 yards rushing with six full games ahead of him on the schedule. He should be healthy and ready to contend for a Heisman in 2012. The long-striding South Carolina native had no problem against Tennessee as a freshman in 2010. He piled up a then career-high 184 yards and added a touchdown in the Gamecocks’ 38-24 win.
The Vols thought they were off the hook in 2011 when Lattimore went down with the injury. Instead, the Gamecocks, powered by former fifth-string running back Brandon Wilds, piled up 231 yards on the ground on 53 carries. Slowing down the Gamecocks will be an even harder task in 2012 if Lattimore is back to his old form.
2. Tennessee offensive tackles vs. South Carolina defensive ends
The versatile Melvin Ingram, who played defensive end and linebacker in 2011, has moved on to the NFL. But the Vols’ offensive tackles will still have their hands full with 6-foot-8, 270-pound senior defensive end Devin Taylor and super sophomore Jadeveon Clowney. The two have already combined for 23.5 career sacks and could easily become one of the most prolific pass-rushing duos in school history.
The Vols will probably counter with their own combination of experience and promising young talent at offensive tackle. Ja’Wuan James, a third-year starter, will man the right tackle spot, while sophomore Antonio ‘Tiny’ Richardson finished spring practice on top of the depth chart at left tackle. Richardson was a little green in pass protection in the spring. He will need to be up for a challenge when the Vols face USC in this mid-season showdown.
3. The scrambling of USC quarterback Connor Shaw vs. Tennessee defense
Shaw, now the unquestioned starter for Spurrier, is an underrated dual-threat quarterback. Tennessee found that out the hard way in 2011. Shaw ran 16 times for 64 yards and found the end zone once in USC’s 14-3 win over the Vols last year. His running performance against Tennessee was impressive, but he became a true ground threat down the stretch. Shaw, now heading into his junior season, ran for 285 yards and three touchdowns in the final three regular season games of 2011.
Shaw wasn’t the only quarterback to find some space against the Vols in 2011. LSU’s Jordan Jefferson (73 yards) and Buffalo’s Chazz Anderson (79 yards) also helped their respective teams out on the ground. Even Kentucky’s emergency quarterback Matt Roark, normally a receiver, was able to rush for 124 yards out of the quarterback position against the Vols despite completing only one pass. Unlike Roark, Shaw is also developing into a polished passer. He completed 41 of 55 (74.5 percent) passes for 657 yards, eight touchdowns and just one interception in his final three games of 2011.
How will it play out?
Coming off a physical game with Alabama the previous week, it will be a tall order for Tennessee to go to Columbia and beat a continually improving South Carolina program.
Shaw came a long way from the quarterback that completed only 3 of 9 passes against East Carolina in the season opener and temporarily lost his starting position.
If Shaw continues his maturation and Lattimore can return 100-percent, the offense should be effective in 2012. The defense will have to find a way to replace Ingram and a top-10 draft pick in cornerback Stephon Gilmore, but young talent such as Clowney will go a long way in filling that defensive void.
Tennessee is due for a big road win, but the safe guess is that South Carolina pulls this one out in a fairly close contest.