KNOXVILLE, TN (WIS) - Coming off a big win against Arkansas last week, South Carolina's confidence level is high heading into their matchup at Neyland Stadium against Tennessee.
And why not?
Just a year ago, the Gamecocks were 2-4 and looking for answers. Now, Carolina is 4-2 and their mindset is completely different at the midway point of the season. Still, the Gamecocks aren't leading their success go to their heads and they have no intentions of overlooking the Volunteers.
"It's the SEC East," said Gamecocks senior linebacker Skai Moore. "We're locked in. We're on the road so, if anyone feels that way, we're checking it as soon as we see that. We're locked in for sure."
The Gamecocks will have to be locked in this week if they hope to come away with a win. USC is 2-16 all-time against the Volunteers in Knoxville. They've also lost three of their last four against Tennessee. However, South Carolina believes they can have success against Butch Jones' team if they can repeat what they did against the Razorbacks.
"Well, I think the biggest challenge is consistency in your performance," said Gamecocks head coach Will Muschamp. "Week-in, week-out, we can continue to play well, and that's something we haven't necessarily done, you know, as an entire team, much less a defensive unit. So, put together some performances that you'll be proud of and how you play. There's no doubt that consistency is really important to have the type of program we want to have."
Stopping the running game again will be critical for the Gamecocks this week. This time, Carolina looks to contain junior running back John Kelly. The Vols leading rusher has totaled 494 yards and six touchdowns on 97 carries.
"(Kelly) is a great back," said Gamecocks senior defensive lineman Dante Sawyer. "We've got to wrap them up. They've got a good offensive line. So, if we prepare the right way, we can come out with a victory."
The Gamecocks will have to also figure out how to stop Tennessee's new starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. The redshirt freshman was named the starter this week by Jones over Quinten Dormady. In three games, he's only completed 50 percent of his passes for just 54 yards. Still, he poses a threat through the air for the Gamecocks, who hope to continue to create turnovers this week.
"You can't put a scale on the amount of momentum that creates for your football team, and the frustration it creates for your opponent when they have a turnover and they score off of the turnover," Muschamp said. "I mean, it's just so uplifting, confidence, belief. I mean, so many things, the emotion I think it gives you a charge for your football team, and it also deflates the other."
It could be another big day for the defense. Tennessee is ranked 13th in the SEC in points per game. Meanwhile, South Carolina's has the fifth-best defense in the conference when it comes to keeping teams out of the end zone.
"I think we have improved tremendously from where we were," Muschamp said when asked about his defense's improvement. "And, you just see the turn; we're playing blocks more square. Not getting on the edges as much and people aren't getting as much movement in the running game. So, I think playing blocks, being more square on blocks.
"I think we're stronger up front. I think, obviously, from a pad-level standpoint, Ulric Jones has improved tremendously. Taylor Stallworth is having a really good year. He's playing really good football for us. Kobe Smith is an improved player. Javon Kinlaw really helps us inside, be able to hold the point inside and demand a double-team and get some vertical penetration at times. We're playing better at the end spot than we did a year ago. Dante Sawyer, Keir Thomas, Aaron Sterling are all guys, and Shameik Blackshear has gotten some snaps the last couple of games. Dennis Wonnum has played extremely well upfront. I think both linebackers are playing at a high level, T.J. Brunson and Skai Moore. And when you have two really instinctive players, we may have bounced out of a gap up front, defensively, but they're able to make us right. I always say, `make us right in the run fit'. And Skai (Moore) and T.J. (Brunson) make us right a lot."
South Carolina will face Tennessee at noon on Saturday.
The game can be seen on ESPN.