KNOXVILLE — Historically, and particularly this decade, the Tennessee Volunteers' football games against South Carolina have been close.
The Gamecocks have won the past three series meetings by a combined 12 points, the Vols won the three before that by a combined eight points and the matchup has not been decided by more than two touchdowns since 2009. Tennessee won 31-13 that year as Lane Kiffin, the Vols' coach at the time, broke out black jerseys and orange pants on Halloween night.
Saturday's 4 p.m. game at Neyland Stadium, which will be televised by the SEC Network, has a lot riding on it because both programs need a victory to stay in contention for a bowl berth. The Vols are 2-5 overall and 1-3 in the Southeastern Conference coming off a 35-13 loss at top-ranked at Alabama, while the Gamecocks are 3-4, 2-3 after a 38-27 home loss to No. 9 Florida, which moved up two spots in this week's Associated Press poll.
"This matchup is always close and always a nail-biter, because they're a good team, we're a good team and good teams always fight it out until the very end," Tennessee senior outside linebacker Darrell Taylor said. "I think we'll get their best game and they're going to get ours, so I think it's going to be a very competitive weekend and we're going to have fun doing it."
Will Muschamp has never lost to Tennessee as a head coach, going 4-0 at Florida prior to winning the past three with the Gamecocks. Vols junior defensive lineman Matthew Butler said the close losses in previous years — 27-24 last season, 15-9 in 2017 and 24-21 in 2016 — will provide some motivation.
"Even if we had won last year or the year before, we definitely just want to win this game and continue to win the rest of our games," he said.
There are still questions concerning who will start at quarterback for the Vols. At midweek, coach Jeremy Pruitt said freshman Brian Maurer was "probably doubtful" for this game — he started the past two but exited each early due to injury — giving the Vols just two scholarship quarterbacks in junior Jarrett Guarantano and redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout.
Shrout received most of the first-team reps during the week, but it's unclear if that was because Guarantano had come under fire for a late-game mistake that led to a game-changing touchdown at Alabama, or if it was just an attempt to get Shrout more practice because he has limited opportunities this season at No. 3 on the depth chart.
Looking beyond quarterback, though, the Vols have shown progress all over the field. Both lines — much maligned both in the preseason and early in the schedule — have improved tremendously. Running backs have had success the past couple of games, and receivers have made plays when given opportunities.
Will it be enough against the Gamecocks?
"For us, every game there is a sense of urgency," Pruitt said. "As players, these guys do a whole lot of work during January and February, all the way through spring ball, summer conditioning and fall camp for really 12 opportunities. You want to take advantage of every one of them. Our guys are gaining confidence as the season goes.
"I feel that as a team we're playing our best football now, which we should — we should improve every week, and the big thing for us is we have to find a way to win the game. Did a nice job two weeks ago (in a 20-10 home win against Mississippi State), and we need to find a way this week. We're playing against a really good football team, maybe one of the best ones we've faced all year. We've got to be at our best."
The Vols could be without sophomore defensive end LaTrell Bumphus, who is still recovering from an injury that occurred against Mississippi State. On Wednesday, Pruitt said he was "questionable."
The offensive line may receive a boost from the return of junior Jahmir Johnson, who practiced last week but did not play at Alabama. Pruitt said Johnson has been "recovering fast" from surgery that took place early this season.
The Tennessee Athletics Hall of Fame is recognizing its 2019 class this weekend. The inductees are Doug Dickey (football coach/administrator), R.A. Dickey (baseball), Christine Magnuson (swimming), Charles A. "Gus" Manning (administrator), Candace Parker (basketball) and Tony Parrilla (track and field).
The class was set to be inducted Friday during a dinner at the student union, and it will also be recognized during the first quarter of the Vols' game against South Carolina.