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Tennessee Football: Is the Vols’ secondary key to beating South Carolina?

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Last year, Tennessee and South Carolina combined for 101 points, 1,113 total yards, 808 passing yards and 10 passing touchdowns.

Will the teams match those numbers when they square off at Neyland Stadium on Saturday night?

No. But they might come close.

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South Carolina (2-2) has the worst total defense and the worst pass defense in the SEC.

While Tennessee’s run defense has yielded just 111.3 yards per game, the pass defense has been porous. It has allowed opposing quarterbacks to complete 68.5% of their passes.

That’s not a good sign when facing USC’s Spencer Rattler, who torched UT for 438 yards and six touchdowns last year. Rattler has emerged as the SEC’s best quarterback. He completed 30 of 39 passes for 353 yards against North Carolina. He was 25 of 27 against Furman. He was 18 of 20 against Mississippi State, including a perfect 13 of 13 in the first half.

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Even against Georgia, he was 16 of 18 for 152 yards in the first half.

He had an eight-quarter stretch where he completed an astounding 59 of 63 passes.

For the season, Rattler has completed 74.2% of his passes for 1,242 yards (310.5 per game) and seven touchdowns with only two interceptions.

Is there any reason to doubt he’ll pick apart Tennessee’s secondary?

Perhaps there is one reason. Rattler has been sacked a league-high 17 times, including nine by North Carolina, four by Mississippi State and three by Georgia.

UT (3-1) leads the SEC with 16 sacks. The Vols might need more than four sacks to help contain Rattler.

But the Vols’ secondary hasn’t been very good against decent competition – or even lesser competition.

Austin Peay quarterback Mike DeLiello completed 30 of 39 passes for 260 yards.

Florida quarterback Graham Mertz was 17 of 20 in the first half.

The University of Texas at San Antonio’s third-team quarterback, Owen McGown, hit 18 of 20 in the second half.

If Tennessee’s secondary can’t defend the pass any better than that against those three quarterbacks, why would you expect it to limit Rattler?

Tennessee has a distinct advantage in the run game, which could result in ball control. But UT’s offense isn’t designed to run the clock, so it’s hard to see the Vols winning time of possession.

The Vols lead the SEC in rushing yards per game at 229.5 – no other SEC is at 200 – and yards per attempt at 6.24.  It’s amazing that UT – with an average-at-best offensive line — has three running backs averaging over 6 yards per carry in Dylan Sampson (7.4), Jaylen Wright (6.9) and Jabari Small (6.1).  

In contrast, South Carolina is last in the SEC in rushing yards per game (75.75) and yards per carry (2.3).

Thus, UT should be able to force USC to pass, but is that a good thing? Only if you apply relentless pressure to Rattler.

Here are a few other numbers worth noting:

*USC is third in the SEC in passing efficiency while UT is 12th.

*UT is sixth in total defense in the SEC (302 yards per game) while USC is last (434.5).

*UT is seventh in scoring (35 points per game) while USC is a surprising 13th (28.8).

*UT is fifth in the SEC in total offense (463.5 per game) while USC is eighth (415.8).

There is no reason to take the under at 61 points.

And giving South Carolina 10.5 points seems like a lot.

Stranger things have happened, but I like the over on points and the Gamecocks getting 10.5.

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