By Brian Rice
“Did we not just play a good football team?”
That was a question asked by Butch Jones during his postgame press conference on Saturday. The question he had been asked was about the progress he had talked about the team making during the off week not showing against South Carolina.
The obvious answer the question is simply, no.
South Carolina is not a good football team. They are a slightly above average football team that did just enough to win an ugly game on Saturday. The Gamecocks will be fortunate to win seven games this year. Sure, I may have to eat those words, but with games ahead against Georgia, Florida and Clemson, a team that struggled to beat Louisiana Tech by one point will have to defeat Vanderbilt and Wofford to finish above .500.
South Carolina is ninth in the SEC in total yards and yards per game. 11th in the conference in points scored. Tennessee is last in both of those categories. As a team, South Carolina is in the bottom third of the SEC in virtually every offensive category.
Defensively, South Carolina is eighth in total defense, one spot behind Tennessee.
So by no metric is South Carolina a good football team.
Tennessee should have won on Saturday. Just like the Vols should have won at Florida. They should have blown out Indiana state and UMass buy as many points as they chose to. They didn’t do that, either.
The statement itself was a summary of everything Tennessee fans have been frustrated with Jones for over the last five seasons. I understand that South Carolina has improved its program from the days of the 1990s when they barely had a pulse by the time they played Tennessee. They didn’t have the facilities and they didn’t utilize the recruiting base that is so close to their campus.
Then, they hired two Hall of Fame coaches in Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier. They slowly elevated their program and built facilities that allow them to compete with anyone in the league not names Alabama.
But Tennessee fans, even the most reasonable among us, will never accept a loss to South Carolina because of that history. And any attempt to pump up how good they are will be met with extreme resistance. In the minds of Tennessee fans, losing to South Carolina is an unacceptable offense. Losses to the Gamecocks were the final straw in the careers of two Hall of Fame coaches at Tennessee, Johnny Majors and Phillip Fulmer. Losing to them is one thing, talking about them being a good football team makes it even worse in the eyes of Tennessee fans.
Offense Stalls Again
And a touchdown on the final drive would not have made a big difference either way. Sure, it would have been another win in a season where those have come at a premium. But the opinion of those that sat in the stadium and watched on television was formed long before the valiant effort of Jarrett Guarantano in the game’s final minute.
The reasons are fairly simple. The quarterback play has not been good enough and the offensive line has not protected well enough to give the quarterbacks a real chance.
It’s disappointing because offense of line was a weakness last year, so much a weakness that longtime Jones assistant Don Mahoney was sent packing. Jones saw his team’s obvious deficiency and made a change to address it. The change doesn’t seem to have made a big difference. The only thing that seems to have bolstered Tennessee’s line is the play of freshman Trey Smith. And credit to the staff, particularly OL coach Walk Wells for getting him on campus and getting him ready to play. But it doesn’t matter how well Trey Smith has played. The guys next to him are not consistently playing well enough for it matter.
When you break down the film on the line, as my cohost has done, the most frustrating part of line play is that there isn’t an obvious problem or an obvious fix. It’s something different every play, a different person blowing an assignment, a different failure to win a one-on-one match up when it has to happen, there’s not one thing. And that makes it an overall problem. Just as I will give Jones credit for making the change, even though it was an uncomfortable one in sending away Mahoney, I also have to assign him blame for the fact that it still hasn’t improved.
Defense Turning A Corner
The most disappointing part of this game is that the defense has improved by leaps and bounds, but it hasn’t mattered. Just as Georgia and Florida did, South Carolina dominated the time of possession and put the defense out there time after time after time in situations where they had to have a stop.
Tennessee did not allow a third down conversion in the first half on Saturday. In fact, they didn’t allow one until South Carolina’s seventh attempt, when Jake Bentley picked up six yards on third-and-one inside his own 15 yard line. From there, South Carolina rolled to a 95-yard scoring drive that tied the game 9-9 in the third quarter.
For all the abuse he took last year, for good reasons, Bob Shoop deserves a lot of credit for his defense this season. His defensive unit fought for four quarters against South Carolina. If you hold an SEC opponent to 15 points, your team should win every time.
His pass defense ranks first in the SEC, having allowed only 775 yards and six touchdowns. At 129.2 passing yards allowed per game, Tennessee is 25 yards better than second place Mississippi State in pass defense. It was perhaps Tennessee’s biggest weakness a season ago, it is now a strength. The run defense is still dead last, though they have shown some improvement since the record-setting performance against Georgia Tech.
A New Hope…
Guarantano made the most of his first start at Tennessee and had the Vol offense moving in the first quarter. But South Carolina made adjustments and UT had no answer.
Part of that comes from how simplified the offense was for Guarantano. It looked as if he had two reads on each play in the passing game, if neither was there, he tucked it and ran. It was reminiscent of Josh Dobbs’ play as a freshman in 2013. Once USC adjusted and took away his biggest threat in Marquez Callaway, Guarantano looked very much the part of a redshirt freshman making his first start.
We saw flashes of greatness. He looked comfortable running the football and did a solid job in the read option offense. He made good decisions and didn’t turn the ball over. When SC dropped into a prevent defense on the final possession, he took full advantage and moved his team down the field with ease and a poise that was very impressive. A game of inches saw the ball graze off the fingertips of his receiver as time expired.
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