With three more losses, Tennessee will have its worst season in history. Coming to No. 17 South Carolina on Saturday, where the Gamecocks have recently been nearly unstoppable, seems to be the first of the three.
"They're Tennessee. They'll come down here ready to play," USC defensive head Ellis Johnson said on Thursday. "What we've got to do is play well and play more consistent. But we do need to play well and try to dominate, no question about it. They've gotten better."
No matter the stakes -- should Georgia beat Florida on Saturday and USC win, the Gamecocks will play Arkansas next week knowing a win sends them to the SEC championship game -- or the statistics, Johnson doesn't want the Gamecocks (5-2, 3-2 SEC) thinking about an easy win. This is USC -- easy wins aren't handed out.
And the Volunteers (2-5, 0-4) while suffering through a miserable season of no depth, near-crippling injuries and one could-have-been-defining win that turned into a loss, can't be overlooked.
"They've run the ball on everybody they've played," Johnson said. "They've just had spaces and spots in there where they couldn't do it, but when they want to, now, they can get to them."
The Vols' offense runs through tailback Tauren Poole, but the Gamecocks' defense is ranked second in the SEC and 13th nationwide against the run. USC's defensive line has been a big part of that, Johnson saying he trusts the D-front to stop anybody, but may be a man or two down this week.
Backup defensive end Chaz Sutton is questionable with a broken hand, one he had surgery on almost two weeks ago. Sutton had to have a pin implanted and was out of practice on Thursday, leaving his status in the air.
The man above him, second-string defensive end Melvin Ingram, is also fighting a broken hand, but has been fitted with a cast that frees his fingers. He will play on Saturday, but his 4.5 sacks (second-highest on the team) may stay at that number due to the lack of grasping.
"He doesn't have complete use of it, where he can grab, but he's got his fingers exposed so he can at least get some," Johnson said.
As for the other defensive scheme, Johnson reiterated that the secondary will be playing much closer to the line and keep trying to stabilize the middle of the field. The Gamecocks did a good job of it last week at Vanderbilt, but are still last in the SEC in pass defense.
"We're mixing it up," he said. "What we want to do is let our players be a little more confident and simple in what we do with less checks. We've eliminated all the checks, getting out of coverages in certain formations and certain looks. I think that's helped our kids focus more on their technique and be a little more aggressive and confident."
No matter the scheme or technique, Johnson wants his players focused on what could happen if they overlook or think what might could happen next week. Tennessee is vulnerable, but Johnson knows first-hand how a wounded animal is often the most dangerous.
"I coached at Alabama two different times," Johnson said. "The first time I was there, we had a stretch of 31 wins in a row, won a national championship, two SEC championships. When I got back, they had been through some probation and some situations. The talent level had dropped. I don't think the work habits had increased to match that. Sometimes, when you play at a big-time program like that and all of a sudden, you're not successful, you don't want to think it's you."
Tennessee is going through a rebuilding phase right now.
It could cut a substantial period off the recovery on Saturday, but only if USC allows it.
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