🏈 The VERY important South Carolina game

Why Tennessee can't afford to lose this week

Hello. This is the Josh and Swain Newsletter, a quick roundup of the week’s top stories and topics involving Tennessee and the sports world.

Here’s what we have for you today:

  • What’s the health status of Tennessee’s key players this week?

  • Could the Vols need Nico Iamaleava against South Carolina?

  • A wild story about a Tennessee fan at Tennessee’s national title game

  • Tennessee’s shot at a game-changing prospect

A CAN’T-LOSE GAME FOR THE VOLS

Tennessee returns to ‘Dark Mode’ this week

There’s no way to overstate the importance of this week’s game for Tennessee.

The Vols will return home Saturday night to take on South Carolina.

📍 Neyland Stadium
7:30 p.m. ET
📺 SEC Network
📻 99.1 The Sports Animal/WIVK

There are several reasons why this game means so much for Tennessee.

1️⃣ Starting 0-2 in SEC play would be BAD.
2️⃣ The Vols are off next week. This week’s result will have a major impact on the mood in Knoxville.
3️⃣ South Carolina ruined Tennessee’s playoff chances last year. Lose again and questions about UT’s program will surface.

So what are the main storylines entering the game?

We’ll start with Tennessee’s health.

The good news first: center Cooper Mays is expected to make his 2023 season debut.

Austin Price of Volquest and Chris Low of ESPN both said on this week’s show that they expect Mays to start for Tennessee.

The Vols need their senior leader on their offensive line.

Will he fix all of the O-line’s issues from the past few weeks?

That’s doubtful. But he can help in a big way.

What about the others?

Several players face questionable status entering the game, including:

◼️ QB Joe Milton III
◼️ RB Jaylen Wright
◼️ WR Ramel Keyton
◼️ CB Doneiko Slaughter

Coach Josh Heupel is as good as any coach in the country at keeping injury news quiet.

So we’ll likely wait until Saturday to know the status of these players and their potential effectiveness on the field.

Milton is the most important player to watch.

He was tackled awkwardly during the first half against UTSA and did not play well after it happened.

Assuming he starts (and we believe he will), how will Milton look?

He needs to run the football for Tennessee’s offense to maximize its potential.

Will he be comfortable running on that left knee? And will he have the same mobility, whether it’s on the run or in the pocket?

Milton and his receivers need to get on the same page this week.

Here are some of Milton’s statistical rankings in the SEC:

-Completion percentage: 11th
-Passing yards per game: 12th
-Passing yards per attempt: 14th

On the other side, South Carolina has the league’s worst pass defense through four weeks.

If Tennessee’s passing game can’t click this week against South Carolina, when will it happen?

Wright is another important player as the lead running back in Tennessee’s offense.

With or without Wright, the Vols will try again to work running back Dylan Sampson into the offense.

Sampson has been electric in the limited opportunities he’s received this season.

Sampson scored two touchdowns and racked up 159 yards from scrimmage last week against UTSA.

Why didn’t he play at Florida?

It doesn’t really matter at this point.

But Sampson needs to be a factor moving forward.

So does Tennessee’s defense.

Remember last year’s game at South Carolina?

Sorry… you were probably trying to forget.

There’s no way Tennessee’s defense has forgotten the 63 points that quarterback Spencer Rattler and the Gamecocks put up on the Vols.

“Revenge” might not be the main motivating factor for Tennessee, but it’s on the list — no matter what the Vols said this week.

“We just focus on every week the same,” senior defensive lineman Tyler Baron said.

Sure…

Tennessee’s defense hasn’t forgotten last year’s game.

Speaking of Rattler: he has been terrific to start the season.

He’s completed at least 90 percent of his passes in two games this season.

And the offense, led by breakout wide receiver Xavier Legette, has been explosive.

South Carolina’s weakness on offense lies up front.

The Gamecocks have allowed 17 sacks this season.

Only five teams in the country have allowed more.

Meanwhile, Tennessee’s defense has 16 sacks on the season. That's third-best in the nation.

The objective is obvious: get after Rattler and make his job tough.

What else must Tennessee’s defense do against South Carolina?

Watch our conversation with VFL and former NFL cornerback Jonathan Wade. ⬇️⬇️

WHAT IF NICO…

Will Tennessee’s star freshman be needed this week?

Here’s a question: What if Tennessee has to turn to freshman quarterback Nico Iamaleava?

Plenty of fans have already suggested he should get a shot to be the Vols’ starter.

Tennessee’s staff has not considered that idea.

But what if Milton’s knee causes him to go out?

Is Iamaleava ready?

I have no idea.

There’s no question about the talent Iamaleava possesses. He was ranked as a five-star prospect and top-2 quarterback in the nation for a reason.

That doesn’t automatically mean he’s ready to lead Tennessee’s offense.

So is he? We asked Chris Low on Thursday how confident Heupel and his staff would be if they have to turn to Iamaleava.

“I know how much confidence they have in (Iamaleava) as a talent. He’s a competitor. He’s come in and kept his head down to learn the offense and get the team to believe in him. But there’s a pretty big jump from being that guy that comes in and having to lead a team against an SEC opponent.”

There’s no question about Iamaleava’s talent.

IF he is needed to step in on Saturday, he could have a big game — and no one would be surprised.

Iamaleava also could look like a freshman if he’s forced into duty.

It would have been nice to see Iamaleava play more against the Vols’ weak competition to start the season.

But Tennessee never pulled far enough away from Austin Peay for him to play in that game. And his playing time against UTSA was limited.

We might not see Iamaleava at all on Saturday.

That’s the coaching staff’s hope going in.

So we’ll have to wait and see if Iamaleava will be needed — and if so, whether he’s ready.

SPORTS NUGGETS

🏈 You won’t believe this story involving a Tennessee fan who led the 1998 team onto the field at the national title game against Florida State.

🏈 Which Tennessee players need to step up after a disappointing first four weeks? I wrote about six players here.

🏈 Tennessee will honor the 1998 national championship team on Saturday. Check out Jimmy Hyams’ interview with VFL Tee Martin looking back at that season.

🏈 Oregon football is about championships, according to coach Dan Lanning, but this video brought in a lot of clicks for the Ducks.

⚾ Major League Baseball is entering the final weekend of the regular season. Here’s where everything stands in the final push for the playoffs.

⚾ For some reason, the Philadelphia Phillies denied entry to an emotional support alligator named Wally.

🏀 Star point guard Damian Lillard is headed to Milwaukee. Here’s a look at the trade and what happens next.

🏌️‍♂️ The Ryder Cup is back (it started just after midnight on Friday in the US). Here’s a preview to get you started.

NEW HOOPS COMMIT

Tennessee landed its first basketball commitment for the 2024 class on Thursday.

Four-star guard Bishop Boswell from Charlotte, N.C., chose the Vols over Georgia, Missouri, Wake Forest and Xavier.

“Rick Barnes got his man,” On3 analyst Jamie Shaw said following the announcement.

Shaw pointed to Boswell’s size (6-4, 195) to go along with his ability to handle the ball and guard on the perimeter as strengths in his game.

Ability to defend on the perimeter?

Makes sense that Boswell and Barnes connected.

JOSH HEUPEL’S NEXT BIG TARGET

Tennessee added a big-time prospect to its visitor list for this weekend.

Five-star offensive lineman Jordan Seaton announced he’ll take an unofficial visit to Knoxville for the South Carolina game.

Seaton had originally planned to take an official visit to Oklahoma. He’ll check out Tennessee instead.

Seaton has to be a top priority for Tennessee’s coaching staff.

He’s ranked the nation’s No. 1 offensive tackle by On3 and plays a position Tennessee must address before next season.

The competition for Seaton will be tough.

His list of suitors includes Alabama, Florida, Ohio State and South Carolina.

As you might expect, Colorado has remained in contact.

The future of Tennessee’s offensive line is a big question.

The Vols have a solid group of O-linemen committed for 2024. Landing Seaton would provide a big boost.

Tennessee will do everything it can to put on a show for Seaton this weekend — hoping he’ll make a return trip to Knoxville before signing day.

We talked about Tennessee football recruiting + the Vols’ game against South Carolina with Austin Price. Listen below or anywhere you get your podcasts.

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