COLUMBIA — We've arrived. It's Tennessee week. Mark it down: The 2008 season hinges for South Carolina on this game.

Folks have often wondered how the Gamecocks will climb the SEC East's ladder, passing Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. The answer, obviously, is beating them head-to-head.

This fall isn't exactly the best chance for USC to topple Georgia or Florida, even though it's possible. But Tennessee is beatable. Especially in Columbia.

That's why, and granted it's a summer line, Vegas has installed USC as a 4-point home favorite against the Vols.

Even respected college football pontificator Phil Steele says Tennessee and USC are dead

even entering the season.

So, can Steve Spurrier pull even with Phillip Fulmer, at 2-2, after his return to the league?

The breakdown

Tennessee offense vs. South Carolina defense

This matchup is for sure intriguing entering the year. No one knows quite what to expect now that David Cutcliffe's moved on to Duke and Dave Clawson has taken over as Tennessee's new offensive coordinator. (The Vols also have several other new assistants.)

Sure, it'll be some variation of the spread offense Clawson ran at Richmond, but what variation? Particularly considering it'll be Jonathan Crompton operating things.

Even with Clawson's influence you can be sure Tennessee will lean on its talented, experienced running backs. Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty fall into the category of guys who seem like they've been in school since the Eisenhower administration. Foster is well within reach of Tennessee's all-time rushing record (684 yards shy).

Lucas Taylor is up there with Kenny McKinley in terms of generally unheralded SEC receivers. Gerald Jones is the versatile playmaker type that USC will have seen plenty of by the time the Vols get to town.

Bottom line is, South Carolina's defense is familiar with many of the skill players Tennessee has. Clawson will add some wrinkles, but nothing the Gamecocks can't handle, by and large.

There'll be more dropoff from Erik Ainge to Crompton than most think. USC's experienced, play making secondary will exploit said dropoff.

South Carolina offense vs. Tennessee defense

Eric Berry made himself known early in last year's game in Knoxville, Tenn., with a long fumble return that set up the Vols' first score in their overtime victory.

Berry also had 12 tackles and an interception in the game. He's one of the best underclassmen in the country, regardless of what side of the ball he plays. To that end, Berry spent some time this spring working with the Tennessee offense.

He can play either corner or safety, but Tennessee will likely employ the true sophomore from Atlanta mostly at safety.

Tennessee's front line is a group of guys you've never heard of, but the line will be OK. But just OK. The linebackers took a hit with the early departure of Jerod Mayo, but Rico McCoy is back.

South Carolina should have a trench advantage as guys like Heath Batchelor and Hutch Eckerson grow before our eyes.

Like Jones, watch for an impact from true freshman C.C. Whitlock, who'll be growing into his role at receiver and (possibly) return man.

The Gamecocks will not romp offensively, but they'll do enough to win.

The crystal ball

If this game were in Knoxville, it might be a different story. But South Carolina's got the Vols right where it wants them in this particular season.

Even though the game is during the middle-to-late part of the year, there'll be growing pains under Clawson and Crompton. At least enough for USC's experienced defense to seize upon.

Stopping the run will be paramount, and the Gamecocks will be up for that challenge. Foster will not set any records this day. The Vols won't crack 125 on the ground.

Chalk this one up as a win for Ellis Johnson and USC's defense, in the mold of the Georgia victory in 2007.

A Captain Munnerlyn interception for a score puts the game away early in the fourth.

South Carolina can breathe easy knowing it's secured victory No. 7. A bowl is back in the plans for the Gamecocks.

An eighth win might be enough to get USC back into a New Year's Day game. Or at least close.

Prediction

USC 24, Tennessee 13

Previous predictions

USC 18, N.C. State 10

USC 23, Vanderbilt 9

Georgia 27, USC 17

USC 37, Wofford 14

USC 41, UAB 10

USC 31, Mississippi 27

USC 31, Kentucky 17

Friday

Arkansas at South Carolina

Reach Travis Haney at thaney@postandcourier.com and check out the new South Carolina blog at www.charleston.net/blogs/gamecocks/

Tigers struggle to regroup, fall to Seminoles

CLEMSON — Florida State has played a lot of bad football over the past five seasons.

And the Seminoles seem to have saved their worst for Clemson.

Sure, the Tigers have had something to do with it. But Clemson's four victories over the Seminoles in five tries — including the last three straight — have been marked more by ineptitude from the latter than brilliance from the former.

Consider this: In 16 quarters of football that covered those Tiger wins, FSU's offense mustered four touchdowns. And all four — one in 2003, one in 2006, and two last year — came as the Seminoles were trying to surmount large deficits.

From 1992 to 2002, Clemson felt lucky if it simply kept things close with FSU. The Seminoles won all 11 meetings by an average margin of 24 points.

And that brings us to this year's Nov. 8 meeting in Tallahassee, Fla. Clemson will come in with a better record, a higher ranking, and probably the better team.

But the 7-1 Tigers will be coming off an emotional, crushing loss at Boston College seven days hence. And you've got to wonder what's going to happen when FSU finally puts it together and plays its best — or merely close to it — against Clemson.

Florida State offense vs. Clemson defense

It's not unreasonable to think the Seminoles' offense will be a train wreck this season.

The most glaring problems are up front, where no juniors or seniors are available. Junior tackle Daron Rose transferred to a junior college, and projected starting guard Evan Bellamy is done for 2008 because of a blood clot.

That leaves second-year line coach Rick Trickett with two returning starters — center Ryan McMahon and left tackle Rodney Hudson, both sophomores. Beyond those two, it's pretty much redshirt freshmen and incoming freshmen.

Trickett gradually orchestrated improvement from last year's line, and he could do the same this year. But it's gonna take time.

Junior quarterback Drew Weatherford has started 33 games at FSU, and his chief competition last year (Xavier Lee) has transferred. But Weatherford's job is far from secure.

Second-year offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher got a good look at redshirt sophomores Christian Ponder and D'Vontrey Richardson during the spring while Weatherford sat after undergoing knee surgery.

Also, incoming freshman E.J. Manuel is purported to be Fisher's quarterback of the future.

The Seminoles seem poised to improve at receiver with the return of 6-6 Greg Carr, Preston Parker, Richard Goodman and Rod Owens. Tailback is a little shaky behind Antone Smith after the transfers of Jamaal Edwards and Russell Ball, but Fisher brought in three talented backs who could compete for playing time.

Clemson offense vs. Florida State defense

The early departures of tackle Letroy Guion and Geno Hayes might have kept this group from being dominant. Still, the Seminoles have enough talent on this side of the ball to be pretty good.

Seven starters return from a group that was inconsistent in 2007. Included are safety Myron Rolle and cornerback Tony Carter.

The defensive line could be stout with the return of junior end Everette Brown and the addition of Markus White on the other end. White earned junior college player-of-the-year honors last season and could immediately help a pass rush that produced just 29 sacks last season, ranking ninth in the ACC.

The Seminoles aren't nearly as deep as they used to be at linebacker, and Hayes' departure leaves a big hole. But senior Derek Nicholson and junior Dekoda Watson are capable.

The crystal ball

Tommy Bowden has done a good job in recent years helping his team recover from debilitating defeats. Last year's last- second victory at South Carolina came just a week after the knee-buckling home defeat to Boston College.

And two years ago, the Tigers followed an emotional loss at Boston College with a victory in Tallahassee a week later.

But there's something that tells us the Seminoles, despite a tumultuous offseason, will be better than expected this year. Nowhere close to dominant, but better.

And something tells us Florida State's offense will finally play well against Clemson. The Seminoles are due.

Prediction

Florida State 27, Clemson 23

Previous predictions

Clemson 27, Alabama 20

Clemson 45, The Citadel 17

Clemson 31, N.C. State 13

Clemson 40, S.C. State 6

Clemson 31, Maryland 23

Clemson 24, Wake Forest 19

Clemson 27, Ga. Tech 21

Boston College 17, Clemson 16

Friday

Duke at Clemson

Reach Larry Williams at lwilliams@postandcourier.com and check out the new Clemson blog at www.charleston.net/blogs/tiger_tracks/