By BETH RUCKER
Associated Press Writer
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - Both South Carolina and Tennessee have something to prove.
The No. 15 Gamecocks were booed on their home field last weekend in a 17-6 loss to Vanderbilt while the Volunteers fell apart on the road in a 41-17 loss to bitter rival Alabama.
A win Saturday night in Knoxville would help either team prove those losses were flukes.
``We have to get that out of our system,'' South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier said. ``It's history. It was a lousy offensive game. We have to get our confidence back and get ready to play Tennessee.''
A win still means more than just pride.
Both teams are in the middle of a free-for-all in the Southeastern Conference's Eastern Division and can't afford another loss. The Gamecocks (6-2, 3-2) and Volunteers (4-3, 2-2) are among five teams with two SEC losses.
Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer compares the SEC race to the playoffs fans have long wanted.
``The highs are high, and the lows are low. It's important to put each one of those behind you as fast as you can,'' he said. ``You can look at this like a single-elimination tournament. I told the guys on Sunday, it's like the NFL trying to get in the playoffs. It's one and done.''
Spurrier and Fulmer haven't had time for the trash-talking they enjoyed when Spurrier coached the Florida Gators. They've had too much to worry about trying to salvage this season.
The Gamecocks haven't scored a touchdown in six quarters, and Spurrier isn't sure who will be his quarterback on Saturday.
Freshman Chris Smelley has started the last four games. But after throwing two interceptions against Vanderbilt, Smelley may be sharing time Saturday with fifth-year senior and former starter Blake Mitchell and third-stringer Tommy Beecher.
Regardless of who is throwing the passes, Kenny McKinley will be at the other end to catch. The junior is averaging 65.6 yards receiving a game.
Tennessee's defense has struggled all year against the pass, ranking 11th in the SEC with an average 249 yards passing allowed. The Vols' young secondary gave up 363 yards through the air to Alabama.
``We've got a lot of things to correct, and certainly that's one of them,'' Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis said.
Some sacks might help the Vols slow Spurrier's ``Cock-n-Fire'' offense. Tennessee has only gotten to the opposing quarterback nine times this season, an SEC worst, but South Carolina has allowed the most sacks in the conference at 26.
Tennessee has been able to protect its passer, Erik Ainge. The Vols have allowed only two sacks all season.
But Ainge's top target, receiver Lucas Taylor, injured a toe at Mississippi State two weeks ago and was ineffective at Alabama. Josh Briscoe suffered a concussion in a catch at Alabama, leaving starter Austin Rogers and freshmen Gerald Jones and Denarius Moore to carry the load.
Taylor and Briscoe are expected to play Saturday. Whether they'll be in top form is another concern. Neither practiced much this week.
South Carolina ranks first in the Football Bowl Subdivision in pass defense, but has struggled against the run. Arian Foster, Montario Hardesty and LaMarcus Coker are itching to carry the ball after the Vols ran only 19 times for 103 yards at Alabama.
``When we were winning, we could run the football and use a lot more clock,'' Tennessee tight end Chris Brown said. ``Things go a lot better when you're running the football well.''
The winner won't face an easy road to the SEC championship game. Tennessee still must play Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Kentucky while needing at least a Florida loss to play for the title.
A South Carolina win, and the Gamecocks control their own destiny with games against Arkansas and Florida.
And Spurrier is hoping that history is on his side, especially after winning in Knoxville two years ago, 16-15.
``Two years ago we beat these three teams,'' he said. ``We beat Tennessee, Arkansas and Florida somehow. We were underdogs in about every game, so it worked out. We believe we have a chance.
``We have to 'one game at a time' it, get some breaks and not beat ourselves and play with a lot more effort and smarts than we did last week.''
SOURCE: NCAAFOOTBALL.COM; PHOTO CREDIT: SEC SPORTS