Given all the uncertainty in Knoxville, Tenn., these days, Tennessee’s football team needs some solid ground to plant its feet. The problem for South Carolina’s football team Saturday is that foundation is likely to be running back John Kelly.
“John Kelly is one of the elite backs in our league, there’s no doubt about that,” Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp said. “He’s a guy who really ran hard against us last year, obviously some of that was the guys he was playing behind. It was really the first time he got a lot of (playing) time, and he took off from there. You can see they feed off of him. He’s a guy that certainly gets them going. He runs violent. He’s a great competitor.”
Kelly is one of two Power Five players in the country leading his team in rushing yards, receiving yards and receptions. The other is Heisman Trophy favorite Saquon Barkley at Penn State.
“Number 4 is a great back,” South Carolina defensive lineman Dante Sawyer said. “We just have to wrap him up. It’s going to take more than one person to bring him down. As long as we get that handled, everybody rallying to the ball like we’ve been doing, we should be fine.”
Kelly leads the SEC with 144.6 yards from scrimmage per game, and with a first-time starter at quarterback in Jarrett Guarantano, the Volunteers probably will lean on Kelly even harder Saturday against the Gamecocks.
That would be a sound strategy in this rivalry. In the past nine years, the team that has won the rushing battle has won eight times, and it hasn’t been close (by an average of 188-119).
The Gamecocks are seventh in the SEC in rushing defense, allowing 145.7 yards per game.
“Fundamentally and technique(-wise), I think we’ve improved tremendously (in run defense),” Muschamp said. “You just see it, in terms of playing blocks more square. (Opponents) are not getting on the edges as much. People aren’t getting as much movement in the run game, so I think playing blocks, being more square on blocks.”
Despite having Kelly, Tennessee is 11th in the SEC in rushing (137.6 yards per game). Kelly has 97 carries for 494 yards but no other Vol has more than 74 rushing yards.
“Our run defense is one of the tops right now,” Sawyer said. “If we keep practicing and going to work, the sky’s the limit. We knew coming in that everybody had a different opinion about us, but we knew what we could do inside.”
If that defensive line play can continue, and the Gamecocks can stop Kelly, it will be two consecutive wins for South Carolina
Prediction: South Carolina 24, Tennessee 21