77F Neyland Stadium, Knoxville, TN
Perhaps no Top 25 team needed a bye more than South Carolina this past week.
Following a season-ending injury to tailback Marcus Lattimore and the recent dismissal of quarterback Stephen Garcia, the 14th-ranked Gamecocks hope the week off helps their new-look offense come together in time for Saturday night's visit with struggling Tennessee in Knoxville.
Lattimore, who scored 30 touchdowns in his first 20 collegiate games, left in the fourth quarter of South Carolina's 14-12 win over Mississippi State on Oct. 15 with a left knee injury. The following day, tests revealed a torn ligament and cartilage damage, leaving the Gamecocks (6-1, 4-1) - who are tied atop the SEC East Division with Georgia - without their top offensive weapon.
"Our worst fears were realized," coach Steve Spurrier said.
Lattimore, second in the SEC with 818 rushing yards, will be replaced by Brandon Wilds. The freshman has 13 carries for 75 yards, and will be facing a Tennessee defense that is eighth in the SEC against the run, allowing an average of 154.0 yards.
"We'll regroup and play with what we've got," Spurrier said.
Four days before the game against Mississippi State, the Gamecocks dismissed Garcia for failing to meet agreed-upon guidelines put in place in the spring after the senior's fifth suspension.
Quarterback Connor Shaw made his third career start a week after Spurrier opted for the sophomore instead of Garcia against Kentucky. Shaw threw for 311 yards and four touchdowns in a 54-3 rout of the Wildcats.
Though he threw two interceptions against the Bulldogs, Shaw found receiver Alshon Jeffery for a four-yard TD with 3:50 remaining in the fourth quarter to put South Carolina up 14-10.
"It was great to see Connor do that," said Jeffery, who needs 50 receiving yards to match Kenny McKinley's school record of 2,781. "It gives him a lot of confidence to come back in the fourth quarter to win the game."
Still, Spurrier know the offense still has a lot of work to do in order to capture a second straight division title.
"We got to coach guys playing the game," Spurrier said. "See if we can line up, snap it, hand it off and look like we know what we're doing."
South Carolina has tied a school record with five consecutive road wins, but has lost two straight in Knoxville since a 16-15 victory in 2005 - its lone win in 15 games there.
Although the Gamecocks, who defeated Tennessee 38-24 last season behind 184 yards from Lattimore, haven't enjoyed much success at Neyland Stadium, the Volunteers have significant problems of their own.
Tennessee (3-4, 0-4), which has lost nine straight and 15 of 16 to Top 25 teams, is trying to avoid opening with five consecutive conference losses for a second straight season. After managing 155 total yards - their fewest since at least 1996 - in a 37-6 loss to second-ranked Alabama last Saturday, coach Derek Dooley has decided to make a change at quarterback.
Freshman Justin Worley will replace senior Matt Simms, who took over after Tyler Bray broke the thumb on his throwing hand in 20-12 loss to Georgia on Oct. 8.
"We are not throwing and catching the way we need to, and we're not calling the game the way we want to," Dooley said. "We just need to make this move. It's not something that is done on a whim. We have a lot of data to make a switch."
Worley, a native of South Carolina and the 2010 Gatorade national player of the year, made his collegiate debut late against the Crimson Tide after Simms threw an interception, and handed the ball off on each of his five snaps.
"The last couple of weeks, we have pushed him pretty hard and he has responded well," Dooley said of Worley. "He has a lot of good qualities, and you will see them on Saturday."
That could be difficult, however, against a South Carolina defense that allows the fewest passing yards (133.7 per game) in the FBS and is fifth with 14 interceptions.
In four games since Sept. 24, the Gamecocks rank second nationally in total defense (206.8 yards) while surrendering only three touchdowns.