KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP)The No. 21 Tennessee Volunteers have a score to settle Saturday night against South Carolina.
Even if coach Josh Heupel and his Vols won’t admit it.
The Gamecocks derailed Tennessee’s possible run to the College Football Playoff last season by thumping the Vols, 63-38. They also ended Hendon Hooker’s college career when the Vols quarterback tore his ACL, though both Heupel and South Carolina coach Shane Beamer insist that’s all history.
“Last year has nothing to do with this week,” Heupel said. “Last week has nothing to do with this week. The previous play has nothing to do with the next one.”
Beamer agreed. He remembers too well how Tennessee jumped out to a 38-7 lead on its way to victory the last time South Carolina visited Knoxville.
“There’s definitely not any pressure for us to perform,” Beamer said. “I told the team that we were successful against Tennessee last year because of how we practiced and prepared during the week. … We have a lot of players who played in that game as well.”
Tennessee (3-1, 0-1 Southeastern Conference) can’t afford to fall to 0-2 in league play and still hope to compete for the SEC East title. The Vols will be wearing black uniforms with orange numbers to rev up the home crowd at Neyland Stadium even more for the nighttime kickoff.
“I cannot wait for the noise and the energy inside of the stadium,” Heupel said.
South Carolina does have quarterback Spencer Rattler back. He threw for 438 yards and six touchdowns in beating the Volunteers last year, and he is coming off a 37-30 win over Mississippi State where he completed his first 17 passes. He finished 18 of 20 for 288 yards and three TDs.
Rattler is enjoying himself and feels like he’s in a zone with his fellow Gamecocks (2-2, 1-1).
“There’s a good vibe out there,” Rattler said. “You’ve got to keep stacking, keep having fun out there.”
Defensive end Tyler Baron, who leads Tennessee with four sacks, is focused on Saturday night.
“If you don’t worry about the right now, you’ll let something slip past you,” Baron said.
South Carolina receiver Antwane “Juice” Wells will miss his second straight game with a left foot injury. The Gamecocks’ top receiver last season returned along with Rattler to build on their 8-5 mark in 2022. But Wells had surgery on a foot issue this offseason and re-injured himself in a 24-14 loss to No. 1 Georgia two weeks ago.
It looked like it might be a long, painful season for Rattler when he was sacked nine times in an opening loss to then-No. 21 North Carolina. The Gamecocks have allowed eight sacks in the three games since.
“Am I proud of them? Heck yeah,” Beamer said. “Do I think we’ve even come close to scratching the surface of how efficient they can be up there? No, and they’ve got a big challenge this week as well.”
Running for 303 yards in a 45-14 win over UTSA last week vaulted the Vols into the SEC lead. They are averaging 229.5 yards with the league’s top rushers: Dylan Sampson averages 7.37 yards per carry with Jaylen Wright second with 6.93.
“That’s a true testament to the o-line,” running back Jabari Small said of a line that still is waiting for senior center Cooper Mays to make his season debut after warming up before each of the last three games.
The Vols’ best chance to contain Rattler is by piling on the pressure. Tennessee leads the SEC and ranks fourth nationally in tackles for loss per game with 9.75. The Vols are third nationally and tops in the SEC in sacks with 16.
Tennessee has registered at least one sack in eight consecutive games dating back to last year’s Missouri game.
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