By any reasonable metric, Tennessee football should obliterate the South Carolina Gamecocks on Saturday. The No. 5 ranked Vols are facing one of the worst rush defenses in the nation, which plays right into their hands.
Meanwhile, South Carolina is one of the worst at turning it over, and the Vols have one of the best turnover margins in the nation. Their offense is mediocre too.
So what’s the one thing that could keep South Carolina in the game? Special teams. Shane Beamer has followed in his father Frank Beamer’s footsteps to continue the family legacy of Beamerball.
“Special teams always has a huge role in the football game,” Josh Heupel said at Wednesday’s SEC teleconference. “There’s momentum plays that can happen on your special teams units. Obviously field position is critical. It changes the way the game is played.”
South Carolina is averaging over 25 yards a kickoff return, good for No. 5 in the nation. Their primary returner, Zavier Legette, is averaging 31.5 yards a return on 11 returns and has run one back for a touchdown.
Meanwhile, they’re averaging 16.93 yards per punt return, good for No. 5 in the nation. Josh Vann is their primary punt returner and is averaging over 15 yards a return on 10 punt returns.
Most notably, though, the Gamecocks have scored touchdowns on two blocked punts this year. The Vols did give up a blocked punt at the Pittsburgh Panthers.
“For us, they’ve been aggressive in fakes and coming after kicks,” he said. “For us, you’ve got to do your job, you’ve got to know your assignment, you’ve got to play with eye discipline and be ready to go play it.”
That’s not the only special teams miscue the Vols have suffered this year either, even in that game. Trevon Flowers also muffed a punt at Pitt. They allowed an onside kick to be recovered against the Florida Gators.
Against the Vols last year, South Carolina faked a punt for a touchdown. The game was well in hand, but it still caught Tennessee football off guard.
“You just can’t afford to do that,” Heupel said. “Our guys, we have great trust in them and believe that we’ll handle it in a really good way.”
It’s worth noting that the Vols have had their own success on special teams. They are No. 13 in yards per punt return, and Dee Williams has been close to running one back.
Also, the miscues by Tennessee football on special teams haven’t really been an issue since their bye week outside of two missed extra points. However, South Carolina has missed two extra points, so that’s a wash.
Still, the Vols have to face them on the road. Also, Heupel noted South Carolina is significantly better than the team UT beat 45-20 last year.
“I just think in Year Two of what they’re doing, they’ve continued to grow in all three phases of the game,” Heupel said. “I think their kids play with a ton of confidence. They’ve made big plays. You look at how they’ve played at home, they’ve played in a really good way, so a huge test for us.”