The Vols (9-2, 5-2 SEC) were helpless on defense, falling behind 35-17 in the first half. And their No. 1-ranked offense was off just enough to slow a rally.
South Carolina (7-4, 4-4) was unstoppable and spoiled what had been Tennessee’s best season since 1998’s national title run.
It capped a crazy day for College Football Playoff contenders. No. 3 Michigan beat Illinois on a last-second field goal. No. 4 TCU did the same to defeat Baylor. And No. 2 Ohio State staved off an upset from Maryland.
But Tennessee was the only team that didn’t escape.
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Here are five observations from Tennessee’s loss amid a sellout crowd of 79,041 at Williams-Brice Stadium:
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Hendon Hooker left game with injury
Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker, a Heisman Trophy candidate, didn’t play his best game. He was off-target on some passes, under pressure on others and had miscommunications with receivers.
Then a bad performance turned worse when he went down with a left leg injury with 11:28 remaining in the fourth quarter. Hooker was stringing out an option play when his leg buckled, and he went down without contacting a defender.
Hooker fumbled, and South Carolina recovered at the Tennessee 17-yard line. The Gamecocks converted it into a touchdown for a 56-31 lead.
Hooker was 24-of-42 passing for 247 yards, three TDs and no interceptions. He limped to the locker room and did not return to the game.
Cedric Tillman caught a 3-yard TD pass on a fourth-and-goal play. Bru McCoy snagged a 7-yard score on a deflected pass. And Hooker threw a dart to Princeton Fant for a 41-yard scoring strike.
Tennessee let South Carolina score at will
South Carolina gained 606 yards of total offense and never found any resistance from Tennessee’s defense.
South Carolina scored TDs on its first five possessions, and that streak only stopped because of halftime. The Gamecocks scored 35 points in a half against an SEC team for the first time since 1995, and they kept pouring it on.
South Carolina looked like Tennessee’s offense, which entered the game leading the FBS in scoring and yards.
Tennessee’s defense simply couldn’t get off the field except by giving up a score. In those five first-half scoring drives, South Carolina converted 4 of 6 third-down plays. On its two failures, it followed with a successful fourth-down conversion.
Spencer Rattler looked like a Heisman candidate
South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler was touted as a Heisman candidate in the preseason after transferring from Oklahoma. But he hadn’t performed like one until the Vols arrived.
Rattler torched Tennessee’s secondary. He was 10-of-12 passing for 185 yards and three TDs in the first quarter to build a 21-7 lead. That surpassed his yardage total for the entire contest in four of the previous five games.
And Rattler never let up. He passed for 438 yards and six TDs, both career highs.
Cedric Tillman is good to go, maybe
Tillman returned to the starting lineup after missing the Missouri game due to injury-related precautions. He caught a pass on the opening drive and appeared physically recovered.
Tillman looked even better when he made a spinning catch for a 3-yard TD on fourth-and-goal. But his straight-line speed may have been a half-step slow on deep passes, or Hooker was not adjusted to it. Tillman also caught a TD pass from backup Joe Milton in the fourth quarter.
Tillman’s TD catches were his second and third in six games this season. He missed four straight games for an ankle injury that required surgery and then the Missouri game for an unrelated injury.
Tillman had more than 1,000 yards receiving and 12 TDs last season.
Jalin Hyatt’s homecoming was relatively quiet
Tennessee wide receiver Jalin Hyatt, a Biletnikoff Award candidate, played against his hometown team. He starred at Dutch Fork High in Irmo, South Carolina, located 17 miles away from Columbia.
And he won four straight state titles at Williams-Brice Stadium, but the Gamecocks didn’t offer Hyatt a scholarship.
Hyatt had a solid performance, but far behind the record-breaking pace of his season. He still moved into No. 2 on Tennessee’s single-season list for receiving yards, passing Marcus Nash (1,170 yards in 1997). Robert Meachem holds the school record with 1,298 yards in 2006.