COLUMBIA — It was supposed to be the first road trip of the season. South Carolina should be stepping off the bus in Kentucky.
Instead the Gamecocks are hosting No. 16 Tennessee, finally starting a season that seemed like it may never begin because of COVID-19.
“I remember coming down to games when I was a kid and just wondering what it would be like to play here,” said newly minted starting quarterback Collin Hill, a Moore native who transferred from Colorado State. “To be able to transfer in and have that opportunity, I’m real excited. I can’t wait for kick.”
Hill is one of a sheaf of newcomers to the team, the returnees all anxious to forget a miserable 4-8 season stamped with the tag coach Will Muschamp has been unable to shake — stagnant offense. The anxiety of trying to get the season played in the middle of a pandemic has lessened, only to be replaced by the anxiety of how the Gamecocks will survive a 10-game SEC-only schedule.
On its original slate, USC had a good chance of coming into Saturday’s game 3-0 and 1-0 in the league. Instead, the Gamecocks are opening the season against No. 16 Tennessee and will play seven teams that are currently ranked in the Top 25. USC is 2-14 against the Top 25 opponents under Muschamp.
But for a series that was decided by six points or less for seven straight years before last season’s 41-21 Tennessee shellacking, it could be a close game. And this one’s at home.
Four keys for the Gamecocks to upset Tennessee:
USC’s advantage is the Volunteers’ unfamiliarity with new offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt worked with Bobo for a year at Georgia and knows what Bobo will try to run, but he also knows Bobo at USC doesn’t have the running backs he did at Georgia or the receivers he had at Colorado State.
Losing blue-chip running back MarShawn Lloyd before he ever took a snap lightened the playbook and forced Bobo to readjust, and his receivers outside of Shi Smith are all full of potential but haven’t produced yet. The Gamecocks have to throw every surprise they can at the Vols to keep them off-balance.
The Gamecocks’ sour defeat in Knoxville last year featured two things: A scoreless second half and Tennessee throwing pass after pass to the middle of the field. USC couldn’t have covered receivers Marquez Callaway or Jauan Jennings in a broom closet (a combined 10 catches for 276 yards and three touchdowns).
The receivers are gone but quarterback Jarrett Guarantano returns. It’s a good bet Tennessee will have other receivers who can run the same routes.
The Gamecocks’ defensive personnel is mostly the same as last year. If they didn’t learn a new scheme to combat the slant pattern, it will be obvious early on.
This will be Guarantano’s fourth start against the Gamecocks and the other three have been strange. USC has yet to intercept the notoriously inconsistent QB and hasn’t gotten much pressure on him.
Yet he lost his first two games against the Gamecocks. In terms of forcing him into a bad day, the results glare — in 2017 and 2018, the Gamecocks sacked Guarantano a combined nine times and broke up five passes. In 2019, they had no sacks and broke up one.
Defensive end Aaron Sterling received a lot of preseason recognition for his six sacks a year ago. The Gamecocks’ greatest strength is their talent and experience across the defensive line. Guarantano may have figured things out in six straight wins to end last year, but no quarterback ever completed a pass by clutching the ball while on his back.
Bobo has become known for airing out the ball but he also knows the importance of running it, especially when he had the fleet of NFL-caliber backs he did at Georgia. Lloyd’s injury removed potentially the best back he had at USC and whittled the number of scholarship guys to four, but the four he has could all play.
The Gamecocks won three straight against Tennessee before 2019 and ran the ball at least 40 times in all of them, averaging 192 yards. Last year, they rushed 30 times for 78 yards and lost.
Different players, but the old approach could still work.
Tennessee 31, South Carolina 21
Follow David Cloninger on Twitter @DCPandC.