Vols to encounter a Gamecocks offense at ‘rock bottom’

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee left guard Jerome Carvin celebrates a touchdown during last season’s 45-20 demolishing of South Carolina inside Neyland Stadium.

Saturday night's football game between No. 5 Tennessee and South Carolina inside Williams-Brice Stadium will contain the co-recipients of last season's Steve Spurrier First-Year Coach Award.

An honor that doesn't seem to include head-to-head results in the criteria.

When Josh Heupel's Volunteers and Shane Beamer's Gamecocks met last year in Knoxville, the Vols roared to a 28-0 advantage after the first quarter and led 38-7 at halftime. Tennessee would eventually coast to a 45-20 triumph in a successful debut of its "Dark Mode" jerseys and pants.

"We certainly got behind quickly last year and did not do a good job of handling their tempo," Beamer said this week. "If you look at it, their first drive was like 14 plays and resulted in a touchdown, so we've got to get ourselves off the field on third down and be great in the red zone. I hope we're further along, but you're never going to be completely ready for the tempo that we're going to face on Saturday night, but I hope we're better prepared for it.

"We certainly learned a lot in last year's game that hopefully could help us, whether it be schematically or mechanics or getting calls in from a defensive standpoint."

Heupel and Beamer wound up sharing the Spurrier Award due to South Carolina's rebound from its Knoxville shellacking. The Gamecocks defeated Florida and Auburn down the stretch and topped North Carolina in the Duke's Mayo Bowl to ultimately match Tennessee's 7-6 record.

This year's Gamecocks are bowl eligible at 6-4 with the top-10 task of Tennessee and No. 9 Clemson remaining — the Vols could actually resemble Clemson on Saturday with their orange helmets — so simply equaling last season's seven wins will be challenging. South Carolina is 3-4 in Southeastern Conference play, posting big wins against Kentucky and Texas A&M but also losing at home to Missouri by double digits.

The toughest task the Gamecocks have faced this season, current No. 1 Georgia, came to Williams-Brice in September and applied a 48-7 lambasting.

"They're in year two of what they're doing, so they've continued to grow in all three phases," Heupel said, "and I think their kids play with a ton of confidence. They've made big plays, and you look at how they've played at home, and they've played in a really good way.

"It will be a huge test for us."

South Carolina ranks 92nd nationally in offense (355.2 yards per game) and 79th in defense (yielding 386.0), but the Gamecocks have college football's most efficient special teams according to ESPN. They have blocked a whopping five punts this season and average 25.8 yards on kickoff returns while allowing just 16.4, and they rank sixth nationally in net punting at 42.4 yards.

Their offense has regressed from mediocrity — coordinator Marcus Satterfield referred to it as "rock bottom" following last Saturday's 38-6 loss at Florida — since sophomore running back MarShawn Lloyd sustained a deep thigh bruise that has sidelined him this month. Lloyd, who has rushed for 556 yards and 5.6 yards per carry, is questionable for Saturday night.

Gamecocks junior quarterback Spencer Rattler, a former five-star Oklahoma signee who transferred after last season, has been erratic all year, completing 178 of 274 passes (65.0%) for 1,968 yards with eight touchdowns and nine interceptions. Rattler's efficiency rating of 128.4 is 11th among SEC quarterbacks, with Tennessee counterpart Hendon Hooker topping that list.

"This is a good, talented Tennessee team playing at a high level in all three phases," Beamer said. "They start all juniors and seniors at every single position on offense and on defense, so it's definitely a big challenge and a heck of a team coming in here. Their defense doesn't try and trick you. They do what they do and get up in your face and come get you. They are very disruptive.

"We're still waiting on that game where we kind of put it all together in all three phases. We've had our moments. We've just been inconsistent. We need to take another step."

The new look

Heupel held his final news conference of the week Thursday and was asked about the orange helmets.

"Our classic uniforms are as good as there is, but our players love being able to put a twist on things," Heupel said. "Our leadership council was part of picking them out last spring."

Heupel said fifth-year senior receiver Cedric Tillman and junior defensive tackle Omari Thomas have "been with us all week" before adding that their availability would be known closer to Saturday's contest.

Turnage time

It was last year's game against South Carolina when Brandon Turnage stepped in for injured defensive back Theo Jackson and racked up 14 tackles and two tackles for loss, earning SEC defensive player of the week.

Turnage only had eight tackles in his eight other appearances last season, but the 6-foot-1, 186-pound redshirt junior from Oxford, Mississippi, has played in nine of 10 games this year and is coming off last weekend's 66-24 rout of Missouri in which he had two tackles, a tackle for loss and two pass breakups.

"Through the course of the summer, he was limited in what he could do," Heupel said, "and in training camp, we kind of had a pitch count on him every single day. He's just been getting more comfortable and confident, and he's a guy who I've pointed out to the team that whether he was starting, getting a ton of plays or not, his investment inside of the meeting room and inside of our program has been so consistent.

"He has played at a really high level, and he's extremely bright and smart. He understands the game and does a great job of helping some of the younger guys. Everybody in our program loves who he is and what he's about."

Odds and ends

Eight of the past 10 meetings between the Gamecocks and Vols have been decided by fewer than seven points, with the exceptions Tennessee's 41-21 and 45-20 wins the past two occasions in Knoxville. ... Four members of South Carolina's staff have coached at Tennessee: Beamer, Satterfield, offensive line coach Greg Adkins and running backs coach Montario Hardesty.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.