South Carolina dispelled any chance Tennessee had to make the College Football Playoff in 2022. On Saturday, the Vols dispelled any notion that the Gamecocks were an upper-tier program nor on the Vols’ level amongst the SEC hierarchy.
Tennessee beat the Gamecocks 41-20 by besting their SEC East nemesis from last season in a number of ways. Start with a more efficient offense with All-SEC center Cooper Mays back in the lineup. His return helped the Vols continue to be a dominant running team and a more potent passing offense. However, there’s more that separates the Vols from the Gamecocks.
South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler had his way with the Vols last season, completing 30 of 37 passes for 438 yards and six touchdowns in a 63-38 win in November. Why? Mostly because the Vols had to blitz extra defenders to pressure Rattler. Tennessee didn’t have to do that on Saturday. These Vols can create pressure with four defenders. That allows Tennessee to drop more players into coverage, which made Rattler look confused and average on Saturday. The Vols’ defensive backs may not be great, but it helps when there’s more of them.
Tennessee’s first drive was a reminder of when the Vols were at their best last season as the Vols were explosive and efficient. Tennessee needed nine plays to rack up 94 yards, which was topped by a 42-yard touchdown run by running back Jaylen Wright. The passing game? It wasn’t explosive right off the bat, but that was just a matter of time.
Quarterback Joe Milton III completed a 50-yard pass to Squirrel White on the following drive that led to another Tennessee touchdown. Why was the bomb so significant when such plays were routine last season? White was only covered by one defender. Previously, defenses were dropping more players into coverage. Not on Saturday. Not with Milton’s underneath efficiency and the Vols’ strong running game.
Watching the South Carolina game makes one think that there are better – and elite – days ahead for Tennessee’s offense, which was averaging 11 points less per game than it did last season.
If the Vols are to return to elite offensive status, they’ll likely have to do so without senior Bru McCoy, who is thought to be lost for the season with a leg injury he suffered in the first half. However, overcoming a key injury at receiver is nothing new. Tennessee lost their best receiver, Cedric Tillman, last season for most of the year and went on to have one of the best offenses in school history and the best overall season in decades. It’s also worth noting that Dont’e Thornton did not play against South Carolina due to injury.
At some point when this season is reviewed and judged, Tennessee coach Josh Heupel deserves credit for overcoming a seriously challenging run of injuries. Mays and linebacker Keenan Pili have been lost for a significant amount of time. Mays was back against the Gamecocks on Saturday, but Pili is still expected to be out for an extended period of time with a reported tricep injury. There have also been various other injuries that have limited several players in just the first month of the season. Think all that is worth a victory or two?
There’s no question that Tennessee’s coaches didn’t have their best day against Florida. The Vols seemed unorganized and unable to adjust in the loss to the Gators in The Swamp. However, no one is great on every day. Considering all that has happened this season and the fact that every championship in college football is still within reach for Tennessee, Heupel’s ability to adapt and his rebuilt roster is proof that Tennessee is in better shape than most of their SEC counterparts, including South Carolina.