Whenever these Southeastern Conference Eastern Division rivals meet, the game generally comes down to the final minute. Tennessee’s quarterback intrigue makes this year’s meeting even tougher to predict.
“This matchup is always close and always a nail-biter,” Tennessee outside linebacker Darrell Taylor said.
Vols coach Jeremy Pruitt has said starting quarterback Brian Maurer is “probably doubtful” for Saturday after concussions left the freshman unable to finish each of the past two games.
Pruitt isn’t saying which of his other two scholarship quarterbacks — junior Jarrett Guarantano or redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout — would play if Maurer is unavailable. Shrout would be making his first career start, while Guarantano has 22 career starts but has struggled through a disappointing season.
“We’re just preparing for all quarterbacks because we don’t know who we’re going to get,” South Carolina cornerback Jaycee Horn said.
South Carolina (3-4, 2-3) is going for its fourth straight victory over Tennessee (2-5, 1-3), though none of the wins have come easily.
Tennessee lost 24-21 as a two-touchdown favorite at South Carolina in 2016. Two years ago, the Gamecocks made a goal-line stand in the final seconds to survive 15-9 in Guarantano’s first career start. Last year, South Carolina rallied from a 12- point deficit to win 27-24.
Their past seven meetings were decided by a total of 23 points. None had a margin greater than six.
“It’s an SEC East rivalry, a very respected rivalry in my opinion,” Tennessee offensive guard Trey Smith said. “The past couple of years I’ve played in the game, it’s always been very competitive. I really love playing them because they’re ultimate competitors in my opinion, too.”
Some other things to watch Saturday when Tennessee hosts South Carolina (4 p.m., SEC Network):
Although both teams have losing records, they also have reason to feel encouraged about their recent results.
In its past two games, South Carolina handed No. 10 Georgia its first loss and led No. 7 Florida in the second half before falling 38-27. Tennessee beat Mississippi State 20-10 two weeks ago and stayed competitive at No. 1 Alabama for much of the game last week before the Crimson Tide pulled away for a 35-13 victory.
Both teams badly need to win this game because neither has much margin for error in the race for bowl eligibility.
South Carolina’s Will Muschamp has a 7-0 record against Tennessee in his head coaching career. Muschamp went 4-0 against the Vols while coaching Florida from 2011-14. He has beaten them each of the last three years since taking over South Carolina’s program.
GAMECOCKS MISSING DOWDLE
South Carolina is planning to play this game without Rico Dowdle, who rushed for 140 yards against Tennessee last season but injured his knee against Florida last week.
Dowdle has run for 457 yards and four touchdowns while averaging 5.9 yards per carry this season.
SURGING RUNNING BACKS
The emergence of Tavian Feaster should give the Gamecocks confidence that they can continue running the ball effectively even without Dowdle.
Feaster rushed for a career-high 175 yards on 25 carries against Florida. He has run for a team-high 492 yards this season with an average of 6 yards per carry.
The Vols also have a running back playing the best football of his career. Showcasing a physical running style, Tim Jordan gained 94 yards on 17 carries against Alabama.
BATTLE ON THE LINE
Tennessee’s offensive line includes two freshman tackles, Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright. That line has improved quite a bit since the Vols’ 0-2 start: They rushed for more yards against the Crimson Tide (140) than they compiled in a season-opening loss to Georgia State.
South Carolina should test that line quite a bit. Pruitt says the Gamecocks might have the best defensive line Tennessee will have faced all season.