GAMECOCKS 2007: at Tennessee
Figuring out the Vols. Perhaps the most unenviable task I have this preseason.
Will Erik Ainge be "Good Erik," the freshman who helped lead the Vols to the SEC title game in 2004 and had a good season last year? Or will he be "Evil Erik," the one who imploded and couldn't outplay the least talented Clausen in 2005 as the Vols slouched to a 5-6 record?
And what, exactly, is up with LaMarcus Coker, penciled in as the No. 1 running back? Who is to be Ainge's go-to wide receiver with the departure of Robert Meachem? How much weight will Phil Fulmer gain if the season goes badly and he turns to food to self-medicate?
O-line. There are issues here, as Ainge loses his blind-side protection but has three returning starters on the right side. The Vols gave up just 19 sacks last year, though, and Fulmer will do his dead-level best to make sure that Ainge and his perhaps fragile psyche don't get shattered by onrushing defensive ends. By this point in the season, Tennessee should have figured this out; the hope is that South Carolina will have done so as well. ADVANTAGE: PUSH
Quarterback. Are there two quarterbacks anywhere in the nation that are more alike? Success, failure, success, etc. Judging from last year, though, Ainge could have a good season, going 233-for-348 for 2,989 yards, 19 TDs and 9 INTs. This is a tough call, because we've seen what both of these young men are capable of and been awed, and we've seen what both of these young men are capable of and been horrified. ADVANTAGE: PUSH
I will become one with my inner Peyton.
Running backs. The Coker suspension, if it continues this late in the season, could be problematic. Arian Foster, who averaged 3.5 yards on 91 carries for 5 scores, is the heir apparent. Montario Hardesty did about the same. That, of course, all relies on what conditions Coker must meet and what timetable he has in which to do it. With Coker, they're even up with the Gamecocks. Without, Boyd and Davis clearly have the edge. With that note, C&F will go with the average. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA
Wide receivers. No starter wideout returns. C&F will repeat that: No starting WR returns. Robert Meachem and his 71 catches, 1,298 yards, 11 TDs -- gone. Jayson Swain and his 49 grabs, 688 yards and 6 scores -- gone. While Lucas Taylor played in 13 games, he had just 14 catches for 101 yards. Rogers, with five catches in three games, is untested. Ainge will have to get some production out of his returning senior tight ends, Chris Brown (31 receptions, 239 yards, 1 TD) and Brad Cottam (14 catches, 182 yards). ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA
Defensive line. End Xavier Mitchell headlines this group after racking up 7.5 TFL and 4.0 sacks in 2006; most of the rest had either limited time or limited resumes, though end Antonio Reynolds had 5 TFL and a sack. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA
Linebackers. A tough corps returns two starters, who combined for 22.5 TFL and 6 sacks last year. If South Carolina's line is still in disarray and a No. 1 receiver hasn't stepped up, these guys could have good nights. Not that the Gamecocks' unit is shabby. ADVANTAGE: PUSH
Secondary. The Vols lose CB Jonathan Wade's 52 tackles, 4 INTs and 13 pass break-ups, but FS Jonathan Hefney returns after a 2006 campaign that included 96 tackles, 5 picks and three break-ups. Every other likely starter is largely untested. The Gamecocks aren't as thin on experience, but they also don't have a proven quantity like Hefney. ADVANTAGE: PUSH
One word: Colquitt. This time it's Britton, but does the first name ever matter with this clan? They're all created by Phil Fulmer is some diabolical underground chamber. Neither returner did much last year, but the Gamecocks didn't either. ADVANTAGE: TENNESSEE
The first name changes. Nothing else does.
Spurrier vs. Fulmer. We've seen this before -- many, many times. Almost every time, the Head Ball Coach gets the better of the Rotund One. The record is more even, 1-1, since Spurrier came to South Carolina, but both games were thin affairs that had more to do with lucky bounces and key plays than with one team being better than the other from kickoff to kneel-down. (South Carolina outgained Tennessee by 70 yards and seven first downs last year, and the Vols needed a 17-point, fourth-quarter rally to win.) In other words, the dynamics haven't changed. ADVANTAGE: SOUTH CAROLINA
This has usually been a volatile game. During the Holtz years, the Gamecocks seemed to get closer, closer, closer and yet always fall short. Spurrier got them over the hump in his first year, but couldn't outrun the luck feedback from the improbable 2005 season. Someone might look at all the times C&F gave South Carolina the advantage and say he's overestimating the Gamecocks. But if he's wrong, he's underestimating the Vols. This is a down year for Tennessee. But the game is in Knoxville. I would say toss-up, but another exemption (in addition to the Georgia game) makes the whole excercise pointless. Understand "probable" means 50 percent plus one. PROBABLE WIN
WHERE SOUTH CAROLINA WOULD BE
The Gamecocks would be either 7-2 or 8-1 going into their game against Arkansas if they pick up the win. But the difference could be dramatic between 8-1, when the collision with Florida will look decisive, and 7-2, where the Gamecocks might instead be trying to climb into an upper-tier (but non-BCS) bowl.
THE REST OF THEIR SEASON
Again, this is a down year for the Vols. Cal and Florida are likely losses, while Georgia and Arkansas will be tough home games. Southern Miss at home and Alabama on the road are trap games, with the game against the Crimson Tide being a rivalry to boot. The Vols also have to travel to Kentucky after edging the Wildcats 17-12 at home last year. But there are some easy wins in Arkansas State, at Mississippi State, La-Lafayette and probably Vanderbilt -- though the Commodores could be tricky. The best C&F sees for the Vols is 8-4, though neither 9-3 nor 7-5 is impossible.