Head coach: Steve Spurrier (66-37 in 8 years at South Carolina)
All-time record: 566-544-44
2012 record:11-2 (6-2 SEC)
Returning starters:6 (offense), 5 (defense)
2012 overview:Perhaps Steve Spurrier has become a victim of his own success. The Gamecocks, a middle-of-the-pack team when he took over in 2005, finished in the top 10 nationally in 2012, yet some fans still considered it somewhat of a letdown.
After winning their opening six contests and routing rival Georgia 35-7, the Gamecocks finally hit the SEC wall with back-to-back losses at LSU and Florida that ended their national title hopes. They rebounded to win their last five, including a 38-35 thriller over UT, but that win came at a high cost. Star running back and fan favorite Marcus Lattimore suffered a gruesome knee injury against the Vols, ending his USC career.
The fact that the Gamecocks were still able to win at Clemson in the regular-season finale and knock off Michigan in the Outback Bowl without Lattimore was impressive.
Led by super sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and safety D.J. Swearinger, South Carolina gave up just 315.5 ypg and 18.2 ppg in 2012 – both good for fourth in the SEC.
Clowney sacks Bray in ’12 (via GamecocksOnline)
Three questions for the 2013 matchup:
1. Can UT block Clowney?
The answer to that question last year was “yes,” at least until the final offensive play of the game. The likely No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft had been thwarted all day by left tackle Tiny Richardson before he finally found his way around him, sacked quarterback Tyler Bray and forced a fumble that cost UT a chance to win the game. Richardson has used that as motivation all offseason and his matchup with Clowney promises to be one of the must-see events in college football for fans and NFL scouts alike.
2. Can Connor Shaw solidify the quarterback position for South Carolina?
Shaw is entering his third season as South Carolina’s starter, but injuries and inconsistencies have kept him from solidifying the job. Spurrier, a notorious quarterback swapper, also has Dylan Thompson and Connor Mitch waiting in the wings if Shaw can’t nail down the job. Whoever is at quarterback will miss receiver Ace Sanders and tight end Justice Cunningham, but will have receivers Bruce Ellington, Damiere Byrd and Shaq Roland as solid options.
3. Can Tennessee get back on the winning track against South Carolina?
UT owned this series until recently. South Carolina won just three games against UT between 1992-2008, but Spurrier has changed its fortunes and now the Gamecocks boast a three-game winning streak in the series. UT hasn’t fallen too far behind them yet, though. The last three losses have been reasonably competitive and Tennessee was just a play or two away from pulling off the upset in 2012.
How will it play out?
South Carolina, again, is the favorite and the safest bet in this contest. But if you’re looking for a potential upset UT could pull off in 2013, this isn’t a bad choice.
Even with UT struggling mightily the last few years, the Vols have kept it competitive against South Carolina. Clowney might be the best player in the nation, but UT is as well equipped to deal with him as almost any team in the nation.
The schedule finally lends UT a break as well. The Vols will be coming off their bye week, while South Carolina will have played the three prior weeks, including a trip to Arkansas the week before travelling to Knoxville. Though a South Carolina win is the most likely outcome, Tennessee should keep this one pretty close and might pull off the first signature win of the Butch Jones era if it catches a few breaks in this one.
Daniel Lewis covers Tennessee football for Nooga.com. Follow him on Twitter@DanielNooga