On a day of close calls for college football's elite, Tennessee Vols didn't heed the warning | Adams

John Adams
Knoxville News Sentinel

Tennessee football couldn't do what the four teams ahead of it in the national rankings did Saturday. It couldn’t pull out of a tailspin against a supposedly inferior opponent.

And it couldn’t do what it has done before: overcome adversity.

Adversity piled up fast and furiously for the Vols against three-touchdown underdog South Carolina (7-4, 4-4 SEC) at Williams-Brice Stadium. The result: a stunning 63-38 loss that eliminated the No. 5 Vols (9-2, 5-2) from the College Football Playoff conversation.

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They still can have a 10-win regular season with a victory over Vanderbilt next Saturday. They still can qualify for a major bowl.

But their bigger goal – the one that seemed so implausible when the season began – vanished amid a South Carolina offensive charge that no one could have seen coming based on how its season has gone. Now, the race for the College Football Playoff and the national championship will go on without Tennessee.

If the Vols had checked the college scoreboard before their evening kickoff, they would have been forewarned. One by one, the nation’s best teams had flirted with disaster.

No. 1 Georgia didn’t score a touchdown in the first half and never reminded us why it's on pace to win back-to-back national championships.

No. 2 Ohio State led Maryland by only three points in the last minute before finally winning 43-30.

No. 3 Michigan needed a last-minute field goal to top Illinois.

No. 4 TCU edged Baylor on a last-second field goal.

None of those possible upsets seemed as unlikely as the four-loss Gamecocks knocking off the high-rolling Vols, whose only loss had been to Georgia.

Just a week earlier, South Carolina was at its worst in a 38-6 loss to Florida. Moreover, its previously inept offense had been further weakened by injuries. Leading rusher Marshawn Lloyd was out. So was backup running back Christian Beal-Smith.

However, second-year coach Shane Beamer improvised with spectacular results. He employed tight end Jaheim Bell as a running back and utilized wide receiver Dakereon Joyner as a runner in the wildcat formation.

Bell and Joyner contributed to South Carolina’s offensive onslaught against UT’s beleaguered defense. But quarterback Spencer Rattler was the star.

He looked more like the quarterback who began the 2021 season at Oklahoma as one of the leading candidates for the Heisman Trophy. And he looked nothing like the transfer who has spent much of this season running for his life behind a porous offensive line while repeatedly raising the question: “Why in the world did he leave Oklahoma for South Carolina?”

Rattler was brilliant against the Vols, whose defense looked overmatched every time he took a snap. In the first half, he completed 14 of 19 passes for 249 yards and three touchdowns while leading South Carolina to touchdowns on each of its five possessions. That was just a warmup. He finished the game 30-for-37 passing for 438 yards and six touchdowns.

“Our old mindset coming into this game was to attack,” Beamer said in an ESPN sideline interview after the surprising first half.

His Gamecocks got the message loud and clear. They never stopped attacking.

While they were virtually flawless in the first half, their most important drive came in the third quarter. The Vols had just scored a touchdown to cut South Carolina's lead to four points.

But the Gamecocks responded with another touchdown drive of their own, again mixing tough running with Rattler's clutch passing. Once more, UT had no answer defensively.

Rattler isn't the first quarterback to flourish in the face of Tennessee's pass defense. Florida's Anthony Richardson and Alabama's Bryce Young each passed for more than 400 yards. Georgia's Stetson Bennett had a big first half passing, but the Bulldogs became conservative in the second half with a comfortable lead.

South Carolina never backed off. And Rattler never stopped making plays.

With 11:41 to play, he rolled right from the 3-yard line, then reversed his field and passed to a wide-open Bell for another touchdown. In the same drive, Rattler converted a third-and-20 proposition.

Anything seemed possible against Tennessee's secondary.

No one has ever implied that UT's secondary was competent. Nonetheless, in every previous game but one, the Vols had overcome that glaring weakness - often with big plays by quarterback Hendon Hooker and the rest of the offense, and occasionally with clutch defensive plays.

But in a strange twist, Tennessee couldn't match South Carolina's offense. And Heisman contender Hooker couldn't match Rattler.

Hooker wasn't at his best but didn't play badly. He passed for 247 yards and three touchdowns, and ran for another 29 yards. His last play was his worst. He lost the ball as he went to the ground with a left leg injury, and South Carolina recovered to set up another touchdown.

Backup quarterback Joe Milton entered the game on UT's next possession. And Hooker limped off the field.

By then, Tennessee's championship hopes were long gone.

John Adams is a senior columnist. He may be reached at 865-342-6284 or Follow him at: