Tennessee Football CFP playoff hopes buried in loss to South Carolina

COLUMBIA, SC — No. 5 Tennessee’s college football playoff hopes were dashed with a 63-38 loss to South Carolina as fans stormed the field Saturday night.

The Vols (9-2, 5-2 SEC) were helpless in defense and fell behind 35-17. And their #1 offense was just enough to slow a rally.

South Carolina (7-4, 4-4) was unstoppable, spoiling Tennessee’s best season since a national title run in 1998.

It capped a crazy day for the college football playoff contenders. Michigan No. 3 defeated Illinois with a last-second field goal. No. 4 TCU did the same to defeat Baylor. And the No. 2 Ohio state fended off an upset from Maryland.

But Tennessee was the only team not to escape.

Here are five observations of Tennessee’s loss amid a sell-out crowd of 79,041 at Williams-Brice Stadium.

Hendon Hooker left the game with an injury

Tennessee quarterback Hendon Hooker, a Heisman Trophy nominee, hasn’t put on his best game. He had gone off target on some passes, was under pressure on others and had communication errors with receivers.

Then a poor performance was compounded as he went down with a left leg injury leaving 11:28 in the fourth quarter. Hooker was playing an option when his leg buckled and he went down without contacting a defender.

Hooker fumbled and South Carolina recovered at Tennessee’s 17-yard line. The Gamecocks converted it to a touchdown for a 56-31 lead.

Hooker was 24 of 42 passing for 247 yards, three TDs and no interceptions. He hobbled into the dressing 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 a total of 606 yards in offense and never met resistance from Tennessee’s defense.

South Carolina made TDs on their first five possessions, and that streak only ended 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.

South Carolina looked like the Tennessee offense entering the game and leading the FBS in points and yards.

The Tennessee defense just couldn’t get off the field except by giving up a score. In those five first-half hits, South Carolina converted 4 of 6 games in the third game. His two failures were followed by a successful downgrade.

Spencer Rattler looked like a Heisman candidate

South Carolina quarterback Spencer Rattler was touted as a Heisman candidate last preseason after moving from Oklahoma. But he hadn’t behaved like that until the Vols arrived.

Rattler set the Tennessee high school on fire. He was 10-of-12 passes for 185 yards and three TDs in the first quarter to build a 21-7 lead. That surpassed his mileage for the entire competition in four of the previous five games.

And Rattler didn’t give up. He has passed 438 yards and six TDs, both career highs.

Cedric Tillman might be good to go

Tillman returned to the starting XI after missing the Missouri game due to injury precautions. He caught a pass on the opening drive and appeared to have recovered physically.

Tillman looked even better when he made a spinning catch for a 3-yard TD on fourth-and-goal. But his speed down the straight was maybe a half-step slow on deep passes, or Hooker wasn’t set for 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 with an ankle injury that required surgery and then the Missouri game with an unrelated injury.

Tillman had more than 1,000 yards receiving and 12 TDs last season.

The Jalin Hyatt’s homecoming was relatively quiet

Tennessee wide receiver Jalin Hyatt, a Biletnikoff Award nominee, played against his hometown team. He played at Dutch Fork High in Irmo, South Carolina, 17 miles 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 fell far short of its season’s record-breaking pace. He was still moving to No. 2 on Tennessee’s single-season yards gain list, overtaking Marcus Nash (1,170 yards in 1997). Robert Meachem holds the school record with 1,298 yards in 2006.

Reach Adam Sparks at [email protected] and on Twitter @AdamSparks.