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Four possible outcomes for Tennessee-South Carolina, and what they mean for Butch Jones

Tennessee’s bye week could not have come at a better time for embattled head coach Butch Jones, who seems to be in serious jeopardy as the Vols prepare to close out the first half of their season. And, yet, the heat on Jones has not subsided since his team was last in action in a 41-0 loss to Georgia two weeks ago. If anything, Jones is feeling even more pressure after the open date, with even more drama swirling around his team: starting defensive end Darrell Taylor suspended indefinitely after kicking a helmet-less Trey Smith at practice; a wide receiver mocking the Vols’ inability to score on Twitter; the father of a former Tennessee player calling the Vols’ program a “dumpster fire.”

On and on it goes. An obviously frustrated Jones lambasted the media at a press conference last month for contributing to what he called “overwhelming negativity.” And the negativity has only been ratcheted up since that press conference, which followed the Vols’ lackluster win over Massachusetts.

As Tennessee returns to action with a visit from South Carolina to Neyland Stadium on Saturday (12 p.m., SEC Network), Jones appears to be coaching for his life. There is only one person — Tennessee athletics director John Currie — who could possibly know if this game will serve as some sort of ultimatum on Jones’ future in Knoxville. But as much as any game can be a “must-win” game, this one is that for Jones and his staff.

With that in mind, here are four possible outcomes to Saturday’s game, and what they will mean for Jones.

South Carolina wins a close one.

Tennessee enters Saturday’s game as a 3.5-point favorite to win the game, but this is a series that has been rife with upsets in recent years — not the least of which was the Gamecocks’ 24-21 win in Columbia last season, a game that knocked the Vols out of the SEC East divisional championship chase. Butch Jones has never beaten Will Muschamp; he’s 0-4 against Muschamp, including three losses to Muschamp’s Florida Gators in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

On paper, these two teams are very similar. South Carolina enters with a 4-2 record, including 2-1 in road games, while Tennessee is 3-2, including 2-1 in home games. The Vols and the Gamecocks have split their last 10 meetings, with each team winning five.

Tennessee comes in ranked No. 62 in the nation in total defense, giving up 382 yards per game, while South Carolina ranks No. 74, giving up 395 yards per game. In scoring defense, Tennessee is No. 59, giving up 26 points per game, while South Carolina is No. 38, giving up 21 points per game. The Vols are No. 109 in total offense, averaging 333 yards per game, while South Carolina is No. 106, averaging 350 yards per game. The Vols are No. 97 in scoring offense, putting up 24 points per game, while the Gamecocks are No. 84, scoring 27 points per game.

While the stats do not take into account strength of schedule, the Gamecocks certainly have a statistical edge on Tennessee. And, as for the Vols being a 3.5-point favorite, consider this: Tennessee is just 1-4 against the spread this season. The only time they covered? The loss to Florida, when the Gators were a 6.5-point favorite and won 26-20. South Carolina is 4-2 against the spread this season.

We wrote before Tennessee’s game against Georgia that a loss would not ultimately cost Butch Jones his job, regardless of how ugly the game might turn out to be. We’re not willing to make the same bet this week. However, we believe that Jones will not be immediately fired if he loses to South Carolina in a close game, which likely means that Jones’ future will not ultimately be determined by a close loss to the Gamecocks. As long as he’s still coaching, he still has a chance to keep his job.

We do not believe Jones will be fired after next week’s game at Alabama, regardless of how lopsided the score proves to be in Tuscaloosa. But if the Vols lose to South Carolina and the Crimson Tide, the Oct. 28 game at Kentucky likely will be an ultimatum on Jones’ future in Knoxville.

South Carolina wins in a blowout

While a narrow loss to the Gamecocks would do nothing to help sooth Tennessee’s upset fan base, things are going to get really ugly if South Carolina wins in a rout. If the game were to get ugly — say to the tune of 35-14, or thereabouts — it becomes more likely that Jones doesn’t survive even until the Vols make the trip to Tuscaloosa on Oct. 21.

Of course, it’s unlikely that Saturday’s game gets ugly — unless Jones has completely lost his team, which we do not believe to be the case. South Carolina is certainly capable of beating Tennessee, but hasn’t looked especially remarkable this season. Th3 Gamecocks’ 35-28 win over NC State in the season opener was impressive, but a rout by no means. The following week’s 31-13 win at Missouri was likewise impressive but not necessarily anything to rewrite the script on South Carolina’s expectations for 2017. Muschamp’s team then lost to Kentucky by 10 at home (23-13) and were fortunate to beat Louisiana Tech (17-16) before traveling to Texas A&M and coming up on the short end of a 24-17 decision.

South Carolina’s 48-22 win over Arkansas last week was perhaps its most impressive win this season. But that game would have been much closer if not for four Arkansas turnovers. The two teams were nearly equal in offensive production (each had 19 first downs; South Carolina had 358 yards of offense to Arkansas’ 330 yards of offense).

Of course, Tennessee’s offense has not exactly been spectacular of late; it’s been six quarters since the Vols last scored a touchdown. And South Carolina’s defense will be licking its chops after scoring three touchdowns against Arkansas last week.

Tennessee wins a close one

This is the most likely outcome. Despite all the negativity surrounding the Vols’ 2017 season to this point, UT has the most talented team and should win Saturday’s game. A narrow win is what the odds-makers are predicting for Tennessee, but does nothing to change the narrative of either the Vols’ season or Butch Jones’ future.

A change at quarterback — redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano will make his first career start after coming off the bench in four of Tennessee’s first five games — could be the spark that the Vols’ struggling offense needs. Guarantano has not looked sharp thus far this season, but his coaches have been impressed by the gains he has made in practice. And, clearly, the performance of junior quarterback Quinten Dormady is not cutting it for Tennessee.

If Guarantano is able to take command of the offense and treat it as his own, with the trust of his offensive line and receivers, don’t be surprised to see Tennessee get back on track. Don’t be fooled by the historic day South Carolina’s defense had against Arkansas. The Gamecocks’ defense is not that great.

So what happens if Tennessee wins? Butch Jones buys himself some time, but that’s about it. We believe it’s still possible that Jones could be fired by the end of the month if he loses to Alabama and Kentucky, so a win over the Gamecocks would not lessen the pressure against Jones over the next couple of weeks. However, it would be a sure signal to Tennessee fans who remain convinced of Jones’ imminent termination that he isn’t going anywhere just yet.

Tennessee wins in a blowout

If The Vols can beat a 4-2 South Carolina team convincingly, the narrative could start to shift somewhat. Such an outcome seems unlikely because it would rely on Tennessee’s offense suddenly catching fire, and Guarantano hasn’t shown that kind of capability in the limited action he has seen thus far this season.

However, the former five-star recruit certainly seems to have the ability to be that good. He was the nation’s No. 37 player in the Class of 2016, as ranked by Rivals, and was the No. 3 quarterback in that class. There’s a reason virtually everyone wanted him — including Alabama, Auburn, Clemson, Michigan, Ohio State, and et cetera.

Of course, it isn’t fair to put the onus entirely on Guarantano. As Butch Jones constantly reminds us, football is a team sport, comprised of 11 individuals on either side of the football. Even if you’ve grown weary of his cliches, you can’t deny the truth in that statement. If Tennessee is to beat South Carolina convincingly, the offensive line, wide receivers and the entire defensive unit needs to step up their game.

But wouldn’t it be fun to just absolutely put a hurting on South Carolina, the way Lane Kiffin and the Vols did it in 2009? Will Muschamp is undefeated against Tennessee as a head coach, at 5-0. And he hasn’t lost to a Tennessee team in any capacity since the No. 10 Vols beat No. 4 LSU in overtime, 30-27, back in 2005, when Muschamp was Les Miles’ defensive coordinator in Baton Rouge.

If Tennessee were to win in a blowout, it would do nothing to satisfy the blood-lust of many Vols fans who are demanding a coaching change, but it would reinstill some faith in the silent majority who have been slowly losing trust in Jones this season. It would renew confidence that Tennessee can win at least seven or eight games this season — or perhaps even nine, if the score is lopsided enough. Nine wins will certainly save Jones’ job, eight wins probably would, and seven just might.

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