Josh Heupel is confident Tennessee will not be overconfident when the Vols travel to South Carolina for a 7 pm Saturday kickoff.
He said last year’s game – a 45-20 romp by the Vols – has nothing to do with this year’s game. He’s right.
He said no play in last year’s game has anything to with this year’s game. He’s right.
But there is also human nature.
When you destroyed a team the year before, when you see it surrender 374 rushing yards to a team you already beat, you might have a tendency to get complacent.
This Tennessee team has not done that this year.
The Vols could have easily overlooked Missouri. The Vols beat the Tigers 62-24 last year, then tamed them again 66-24 this year.
Taking the opponent for granted does not seem to be in Tennessee’s DNA.
That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, but it appears unlikely.
Too many players on this UT team have experienced defeat, dejection and rejection to sleepwalk through a game.
Hendon Hooker plays with a chip on his shoulder because Virginia Tech no longer wanted him.
Jalin Hyatt plays with a chip on his shoulder because South Carolina didn’t recruit him.
Darnell Wright plays with a chip on his shoulder because he was considered a bust for a five-star.
Bru McCoy plays with a chip on his shoulder because USC suspended him for a year.
Cedric Tillman plays with a chip on his shoulder because fans thought for three years that UT wasted a scholarship on him.
Tennessee has plenty of stories of players who still feel like they have something to prove. And many have the scars from that 3-7 season in 2020.
That’s one reason Tennessee isn’t likely to overlook an opponent.
Another is Heupel’s laser focus in preparation. He preaches the most important game is the next game – whether it’s against Akron or UT-Martin.
His players have followed suit.
There’s another reason Tennessee can’t afford to approach any game overconfident.
The College Football Playoff.
You can’t come this close to the doorstep then forget to ring the bell.
If anyone needs a reminder, think back to 2016.
Tennessee beat Florida and Georgia in back-to-back games to control the East Division race. An upset loss to South Carolina cost the Vols the East Division title. An upset loss to Vanderbilt cost the Vols a trip to the Sugar Bowl.
Tennessee is assured of a berth in the CFP if three of these four things happen: LSU loses, USC loses, TCU loses and the Michigan-Ohio State game is decided by at least two touchdowns.
If all four happen, UT likely will be the No. 3 seed, behind Georgia and the Michigan-Ohio State winner.
If three happen, UT likely will be a No. 4 seed.
If two happen, UT is in jeopardy of missing out on the four-team playoffs.
The last five times Tennessee has traveled to South Carolina, the game has been decided by four or fewer points. The Gamecocks have won three of those.
But there is too much riding for Tennessee to take Shane Beamer’s team for granted.
Three keys for Tennessee:
Start fast. South Carolina beat Texas A&M thanks in part to returning the opening kickoff for a touchdown. It beat Kentucky after recovering a fumble on the Wildcat’s 2-yard line on the first snap from scrimmage.
But if South Carolina doesn’t get early momentum, the Gamecocks lose. They fell to Arkansas 44-30, to Georgia 48-7, and to Florida 38-6.
And UT has outscored opponents 113-51 in the first quarter.
Secondly, keep the crowd out of the game. Crowd noise certainly impacted UT at Georgia, leading to seven pre-snap penalties. A quick start by the Vols will silence the fans.
Thirdly, don’t be overconfident.
If Tennessee plays its game, South Carolina, a 20-point underdog, should pose no threat.
Phil Kornblut of the South Carolina Radio Network might have put it best when he complimented the Gamecocks crowd and noise level and band and video board.
“Everything that doesn’t help you win a football game,’’ he said, “they’re good at.’’
Prediction: Tennessee 52, South Carolina 17.