Vols vs. South Carolina | Rick's keys

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WVLT) — What appears to be a steadily improving Tennessee football team has a chance to really prove its worth with a win over South Carolina on Saturday. After defeating Miss. State, the Vols showed continued growth in a loss at Alabama last week.

Tennessee’s run game looked better, the defensive front was aggressive and as a whole, that unit was much more physical in holding the Tide to its lowest offensive output of the season. Maintaining that level of play will be essential as the Vols enter a stretch of winnable, but crucial games this season. Again, up first, a group of Gamecocks who themselves, have had an emotional last couple weeks first upsetting then #3 Georgia and then relinquishing a lead at home in a loss to fellow SEC East rival Florida.

Both Tennessee and South Carolina are a banged up a bit, but emotions and determination are running high with a lot still on the line. The Vols must win four of their last five games in order to become bowl eligible. Here are the keys to getting that first victory on Saturday:

1. STAY MOTIVATED: Jeremy Pruitt and his staff must find a way to keep this Tennessee team engaged and playing at the highest level possible. The Vols have shown steady improvement and can ill afford a step back with so much at stake.

2. QUARTERBACK PLAY: With Brian Maurer unlikely to play against the Gamecocks the Vols will need to get elevated play from either Jarrett Guarantano or J. T. Shrout. When in the game, Maurer has shown the energy and connection with his teammates that Guarantano and Shrout must display in what is an important leadership role.

3. RUN GAME: Helping that quarterback situation will be a continued effort in the run game. Tennessee’s offensive line has shown bursts of progress in recent weeks and more than held their own against the Crimson Tide. Tim Jordan has provided a spark for the Vols at the tailback position rushing for almost 100 yards against Alabama. Tennessee will need a balanced attack to keep what is a formidable Gamecock defensive front honest.

4. RED ZONE OFFENSE: Place kicker Brent Cimaglia has been terrific, but Tennessee must find a way to score touchdowns. Last week, the Vols ventured inside Bama’s 10 yard line four different times. Those trips resulted in one touchdown, two field goals and a turnover Vol fans would love to forget!

5. THIRD DOWN FOR WHAT: A key matchup to watch Saturday will be the third down when the Vols defense is on the field. Tennessee’s defense has had trouble getting off the field allowing opponents to convert third downs nearly 50 percent of the time. Conversely, South Carolina, which sports a Freshman quarterback, has had trouble converting on third down, doing so only about 30 percent of the time. Gaining the upper hand on this front will go a long way towards a Tennessee win Saturday.

Turnovers could have easily been a part of the Vols keys to victory, but then again, that’s been a recurring theme all season and a given if any of the above will have a chance to play out. It’s Tennessee and South Carolina, Saturday at 4pm inside Neyland Stadium. The Vol Walk is set for 1:45PM. The SEC Network will have the broadcast.