South Carolina head coach Steve Spurrier celebrates a first quarter touchdown against Auburn with quarterback Stephen Garcia during an NCAA college football game against Auburn, Saturday, Sept. 25, 2010 Auburn, Ala. (AP Photo/The State, C. Alug Berry)
KNOXVILLE — Derek Dooley’s penchant for publicizing his Tennessee football team’s struggles took another interesting turn this past Monday.
No, not that interesting turn.
Southeastern Conference fans won’t soon forget Dooley comparing his inexperienced Volunteers to the German soldiers defending the beaches of Normandy, France, on D-Day. But because of that three-minute analogy, Dooley’s comment about UT’s best chance to beat today’s opponent — 17th-ranked South Carolina — slid through the cracks.
Dooley half-jokingly suggested the Vols (2-5, 0-4) might need to rely on the Gamecocks (5-2, 3-2) suffering through dissension in the ranks.
“They’re just going to be arguing with the head coach on whether to run it or throw it, because both of them look good,” Dooley said. “’We ought to run it, Coach. Look at the film.’ ‘I know, but have you seen the film on throwing it?’
“What we’re hoping is they start arguing a little bit about what to do.”
That would certainly help UT’s cause. South Carolina statistically outclasses the Vols in nearly every way — except passing defense, where UT is ninth in the SEC and South Carolina is last.
“It’s probably the best team they’ve had, certainly since 2001,” Dooley said. “We’ve got a heck of a challenge. It doesn’t get any easier.”
Offensively, South Carolina has been better than the Vols by more than eight points and 80 yards per game. That’s 22 rushing yards and more than 60 passing yards better.
Defensively, the Gamecocks are superior by more than 10 points, more than 60 rushing yards and nearly 50 yards total per game.
South Carolina has registered the most sacks in the league. UT has allowed the most sacks. The Gamecocks are the best third-down offense in the league, converting 54.1 percent of the time. The Vols are 11th, converting 28.7 percent.
The Vols do have a better turnover margin than South Carolina, they’re penalized less and they seem on paper to have a better overall special-teams unit.
That trio could keep the Vols in the game. It’ll certainly be needed, considering the new list of names out or questionable headed into today’s 12:21 p.m. kickoff.
“We’ll get the guys ready to go as best we can and let them go out there and compete,” defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox said. “No excuses. We don’t make excuses.”
Fair enough, but here are some causes for serious concern.
Senior starting fullback Kevin Cooper will miss the game after violating an unspecified team academic rule. Sophomore starting cornerback Marsalis Teague is highly questionable with turf toe. Junior starting quarterback Matt Simms said all week he’d battle through a sprained left knee, but his lack of mobility at Thursday’s practice raised some eyebrows on the coaching and training staffs.
Longtime UT nemesis Steve Spurrier was not inclined to downplay these Vols.
“Tennessee has had somewhat of a struggling year, [but] they’ve looked pretty good at times,” Spurrier said. “Their personnel on defense looks as good as anyone we’ve played, maybe better than some teams, but they seem to not play well in the second half as an entire team.
“We have to play well to beat these guys.”
Spurrier did downplay the Vols’ lack of experience and depth, preferring to point out their commanding 22-4-2 series lead against the Gamecocks — including a 31-13 win in Knoxville last season, when UT entered Neyland Stadium at night in black jerseys and stomped South Carolina from the opening minutes.
“We all play a lot of freshmen,” he said. “[Receiver] Ace Sanders and [tailback] Marcus Lattimore are freshmen out there. If you’re a good player, it doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman or senior. It just depends on how they play. We have some good freshmen, we have some good seniors and so forth. We try to put the best players out there regardless of what year they are in school.”