In a game of opposites, Tennessee went in the wrong direction Saturday night at South Carolina.
And it cost the Vols (9-2) a chance to gain a berth in the College Football Playoffs.
South Carolina, reeling from a 38-6 loss at Florida last week, scored early and often and confounded Tennessee’s defense for 60 minutes, scoring an improbable 63-38 victory in a stunner.
The Vols, a 22-point favorite, entered the game ranked No. 5 in the voting polls and the CFP poll. They had to win out and get some help to make the final four.
It didn’t happen, thanks to a terrific performance by a Carolina team that was not only throttled by Florida, but lost 23-10 at home to Missouri, a team Tennessee terrorized 62-24 last week.
The Gamecocks’ 63 points were their most ever as an unranked team against a top five team.
Carolina certainly flipped the switch on Tennessee.
The Vols entered the game with a high-powered offense, but it was Carolina that scored nine touchdowns.
UT quarterback Hendon Hooker entered the game as a Heisman Trophy candidate, but it was Spencer Rattler who played like the nation’s best player. The Oklahoma transfer completed 30 of 37 passes for 438 yards and a school-record six touchdowns. He had only eight TD passes (and nine interceptions) through 10 games.
“Shane Rattler – unbelievable,’’ said Carolina coach Shane Beamer.
UT entered the game as one of the nation’s fastest starting teams, but the Gamecocks led 21-7 after the first quarter and scored on all five first-half possessions to take a 35-24 halftime lead.
UT entered the game leading the nation in points and total yards, but it was Carolina that was unstoppable, scoring a touchdown on nine of 10 full possessions and rolling up 606 yards.
UT entered the game with the creative play calling, but Carolina befuddled the Vols with speed sweeps, a wildcat package, a throwback pass to the quarterback and pass routes that had wideouts running open in the porous Vols’ secondary.
“We’ve got a resilient bunch,’’ Beamer said. “I’ve been telling people we’ve got a good football team and we sure as hell showed it tonight.’’
You sure as hell didn’t show it against Florida. Or Missouri. Or Georgia.
But on this night, Carolina was clicking and Tennessee’s defense was deplorable, bringing back memories of the loss to Purdue in the Music City Bowl.
UT’s secondary not only surrendered 453 passing yards, but the Gamecocks converted 8 of 11 on third down – including a third-and-20 – and made good on two of two tries on fourth down.
Tennessee’s defense didn’t cover, didn’t tackle and didn’t appear organized.
Rattler wasn’t the only Gamecock that rattled Tennessee. Jaheim Bell, converted from tight end to running back due to injuries, rushed for 82 yards and had two touchdown catches. Dakareon Joyner scored twice on runs out of the wildcat. Antwane Wells had 11 catches for 177 yards and scored on a 3-yard speed sweep. And Josh Vann had two scoring receptions.
Hooker struggled with his accuracy, despite going 25 of 42 for 247 yards and two touchdowns before suffering an apparent knee injury in the fourth quarter. The extent of the injury isn’t known.
Receiver Cedric Tillman, who didn’t play last week and was doubtful to play against Carolina, led the Vols with nine catches for 81 yards and two touchdowns.
Squirrel White added five catches for 96 yards.
But it was far too little for a team that couldn’t slow down one of the SEC’s lowest-scoring teams.
“At the end of the day,’’ said Vols coach Josh Heupel, “we didn’t coach or play well. I’m disappointed for our players. They hurt. Our coaches hurt. I hurt.’’
Heupel couldn’t help but tip his cap to Rattler.
“Streaky,’’ Heupel said of Rattler. “We said we couldn’t let him get hot. He got hot tonight. He made plays in the pocket and out of the pocket.’’
Heupel said Carolina made plays against UT’s zone and man coverage.
“We didn’t cover tight enough,’’ Heupel said.
UT defensive tackle Latrell Bumphus was at a loss to explain the poor performance.
“It’s a bitter pill,’’ Bumphus said. “It’s hard to swallow. Give them credit. They were the better team tonight and it showed.’’