COLUMBIA — Tennessee has played one of the toughest conference schedules in college football so far.
The Volunteers are 0-4 in the Southeastern Conference, with losses to No. 18 Florida, No. 5 Georgia, No. 19 Mississippi State and No. 1 Alabama. The Georgia and Mississippi State games were on the road. Those four teams are currently ranked Nos. 3, 12, 13 and 1.
Things get easier for Tennessee in November, when it plays Troy, Missouri, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. None of those four teams are ranked. Missouri is 0-4 in the SEC, Vanderbilt 2-3 and Kentucky 0-5. Only the Vanderbilt game is on the road.
But this Saturday, the Volunteers must travel to another ranked team — No. 17 South Carolina. It is a chance for oft-criticized third-year coach Derek Dooley to show some progress. He went 3-5 and 1-7 in the SEC in his first two years, marking Tennessee’s first back-to-back losing SEC records since 1976-77. Between then and 2010, Dooley’s first year, the Volunteers had had just three losing SEC records, including 3-5 in 2005 and 2008 under Phillip Fulmer.
If Tennessee loses to USC, it is guaranteed to have a losing SEC record for the third straight year — something that hasn’t happened since 1962-64, when the Volunteers had three coaches in three years and went 2-6, 3-5 and 1-5-1.
The Volunteers’ defense has struggled against league competition, allowing 43.2 points, 525.8 yards and 246 rushing yards per game — worst in the SEC in all three categories. Tennessee’s pass defense against SEC teams (279.8 yards per game) is second-worst. Obviously, the Volunteers have played tough league opponents, but their 525.8 yards allowed per game are 82.8 more than any other SEC team.
While defense remains Tennessee’s biggest issue, quarterback Tyler Bray hasn’t been great against SEC teams, either. Against league competition, he is completing 51.4 percent of his passes for 217.5 yards per game (6.2 per attempt), six touchdowns and eight interceptions. Against non-league competition: 69.2 percent, 348 yards per game (10 per attempt), 10 touchdowns and one interception.
He has six picks and four touchdowns in the past three games, and Dooley is not happy with his performance.
“If he’s loose with the ball, he’s coming out of the game and we’re going to play (Justin) Worley,” Dooley said. “I told (Bray) that. He’s too loose with the football, and he’s been too loose. That’s the way it is. We can’t beat these teams turning the ball over. There’s going to be inevitable turnovers in a game. When there is one, make them have made a great play to get it, not serve it up to them, which is what we do.”
Worley, now a true sophomore, played for an injured Bray last season against USC. The Gamecocks held Worley, a Rock Hill native, to 10-of-26 passing for 105 yards and two interceptions in a 14-3 USC victory.
Despite Bray’s struggles, Tennessee still ranks seventh in the SEC in both scoring (27 points) and total offense (365.2 yards per game) in league games.
The Gamecocks likely will not win the SEC for the first time, as they need a maze of tiebreakers to even get to the league’s championship game.
“We’ve got to accept the fact that we’re not going to win the SEC this year, and we’ve accepted that,” said USC coach Steve Spurrier. “We’ve got plenty of other goals out there. The one we are trying to do right now is win our home games. You’ve always got to have hope, and when it’s gone, ‘All right, what’s our next goal?’ That’s why as a coach, I’ve always like to set eight to 10 goals, to see how many you can hit as you go through the year.”
USC went 6-1 at home last year for the third straight year. USC has gone undefeated at home 11 times, most recently in 1987, when it went 7-0, as it also did in 1979, 1980 and 1984. USC is 4-0 at home this year, with Arkansas and Wofford coming to Columbia after Tennessee.
USC offensive line coach Shawn Elliott said he will return to using the same starters as he did in the three games before last week’s loss at Florida.
That means A.J. Cann will start again at left guard, where he had started every game since the beginning of last season before being replaced by redshirt freshman Kyle Harris at Florida. And Corey Robinson will start again at left tackle. He had started four straight games there before Mike Matulis got the nod in Gainesville.
Matulis is limited by a sore shoulder. Elliott said he started Harris for Cann because he wanted to motivate Cann, but Harris was ineffective while rotating with Cann.
“(Harris) didn’t look good at all,” Elliott said. “You won’t see him back out there.”
“I always felt that A.J. was the man for the job. I just thought that you need to get somebody’s attention at some point. We’ll see if it works.”