After a 1-4 start last season, Tennessee sparked an impressive turnaround that culminated in six straight wins to end the season, including a Gator Bowl victory over Indiana to get to 8-5. The No. 16-ranked Volunteers are now set to embark on their third season under head coach Jeremy Pruitt. Just how prepared they will be, remains to be seen, after taking a hard hit from the COVID-19 pandemic in the offseason. It has been suggested that Tennessee was down as many as 50 players at one point during preseason camp due to contact tracing and the virus itself. The good news is that the Volunteers are expected to be close to full strength for Saturday night's game at South Carolina. They also make their way to Columbia riding the momentum of that six-game win streak. A streak that began with an impressive 41-21 victory over the Gamecocks last season in Knoxville.
South Carolina seems to have dodged the COVID-19 bullet, for the most part. However, the Gamecocks were not able to avoid a daunting 2019 schedule that resulted in a disappointing 4-8 record, placing head coach Will Muschamp firmly on the hot seat. As a result, Muschamp will roll into the unconventional 2020 season looking to right the ship with a revamped coaching staff that includes new offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who spent the last five years as head coach at Colorado State. The Gamecocks will also be breaking in a new starting quarterback in graduate transfer Collin Hill, who followed Bobo from Colorado State. Will it be enough to jump-start the South Carolina offense on Saturday night in this critical SEC East matchup?
This has been one of the most hotly contested rivalries in the SEC in recent years. Prior to Tennessee's 41-21 win last season, seven consecutive games in this series were decided by six points or less. The Vols lead the all-time series 26-10-2, but they have not beaten the Gamecocks in Columbia since 2014.
No. 16 Tennessee at South Carolina
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 26 at 7:30 p.m. ET
TV: SEC Network
Spread: Tennessee -3.5
When Tennessee Has the Ball
Much of Tennessee's success, or lack thereof, on offense will hinge on quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. The fifth-year senior has been wildly inconsistent during his time in Knoxville. But until now, Guarantano has never had the same offensive coordinator and quarterback coach as he did the season prior. More importantly, this is the first time in five seasons that Guarantano hasn't been tasked with learning a new offensive system. The hope is that continuity will pay off in the form of a big step forward for Guarantano this season.
With the departure of top targets Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway, Guarantano will have to rely on a relatively inexperienced wide receiver corps. Seniors Josh Palmer and Brandon Johnson return as the Vols' only proven commodities at wide receiver. However, Tennessee has a wealth of promising young talent at the position. And there's a long list of candidates that have the potential to step up and make an impact. Ramel Keyton, Cedric Tillman, Jalin Hyatt, Malachi Wideman, Jimmy Calloway, and USC transfer Velus Jones Jr. are the most likely ones to make their presence known against the Gamecocks on Saturday.
Tennessee should be much improved in the run game with the potent one-two punch of Ty Chandler and Eric Gray in the backfield. And paving the way will be the strength of the Tennessee offense — a deep and talented line, headlined by All-SEC guard Trey Smith. The Vols are still awaiting word from the SEC on transfer Cade Mays' availability for Saturday, but even without Mays in the lineup, Tennessee should be plenty stout up front.
On the other side of the line of scrimmage, South Carolina has some big shoes to fill up front with the departure of All-SEC defensive lineman Javon Kinlaw, along with fellow standouts D.J. Wonnum and Kobe Smith. But the drop-off shouldn't be too significant with the talented combination of Aaron Sterling (6 sacks last season) and Keir Thomas returning to help fill the void. Expectations are also high for a pair of former five-star prospects in Zacch Pickens and Jordan Burch along the defensive front. It will be critical for this group to be a disruptive force on Saturday, and that will be a tall order against a formidable Tennessee offensive line.
The Gamecocks should be solid on the back end of their defense. Ernest Jones returns at middle linebacker, where he led the team in tackles a season ago with 97. And South Carolina's secondary is expected to be a real strength, led by a pair of all-conference talents in Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu (4 interceptions last season). That being said, a South Carolina pass defense that ranked 80th nationally and 12th in the SEC last season must step up. It's also worth noting that the Gamecocks gave up 351 yards and three touchdowns through the air against Tennessee last season.
When South Carolina Has the Ball
The South Carolina offense is somewhat of a mystery. Will Muschamp and new OC Mike Bobo have been fairly tight-lipped, other than suggesting that they will employ a balanced, yet aggressive, offensive attack. The bigger question lies with new starting quarterback Collin Hill, who beat out last year's starter Ryan Hilinski in preseason camp. Hill is very familiar with Bobo's offensive system from their time together at Colorado State, which played a big part in him winning the starting job. Hill was also fairly successful during his time at CSU - passing for 3,320 yards with 23 TDs and 11 interceptions in 18 games played (11 starts). But there's a big difference between playing quarterback in the Mountain West and playing quarterback in the SEC, and Hill will have his work cut out for him in his first start as a Gamecock against Tennessee.
The Gamecocks are also charged with replacing star wide receiver Bryan Edwards, as well as their top three running backs from last season. They also lost highly touted freshman running back MarShawn Lloyd to an ACL tear this summer. Wide receiver Shi Smith (43 rec., 489 yds., 2 TDs) is South Carolina's top returning pass catcher. Josh Vann, OrTre Smith, Xavier Legette are wide receivers that also have experience, but have yet to make a real impact. Tight end Nick Muse appears poised to become a go-to target for Hill in the passing game. But there are still more questions than answers at this point for a largely untested receiving corps. The same is true for an inexperienced South Carolina backfield. Sophomore running back Kevin Harris showed flashes in limited action last season, as did fellow sophomore Deshaun Fenwick. And junior college transfer ZaQuandre White has garnered rave reviews in fall camp. The Gamecocks will likely go with a committee approach until one of the aforementioned running backs stands out enough to take on a feature role. In terms of the offensive line, South Carolina should be much improved with four starters returning, including preseason All-SEC guard Sadarius Hutcherson.
Lining up across from the new-look South Carolina offense on Saturday will be a Tennessee defense that ranked 23rd in the nation a season ago and could be even better this season. The Vols will be hard-pressed to replace the production and leadership left behind by defensive standouts Daniel Bituli (led team in tackles), Darrell Taylor (8.5 sacks), and safety Nigel Warrior (team-leading 4 interceptions). But there is plenty of talent on tap to help fill the void.
Tennessee doesn't have a lot of star power on its defensive front. However, the Vols do have a deep rotation of experienced players that have proven that they can get the job done by way of a collective effort. Sophomore middle linebacker Henry To'o To'o is a star in the making following a breakout Freshman All-American campaign. And an experienced Tennessee secondary is headlined by a pair of talented defensive backs in Bryce Thompson and Shawn Shamburger that should make a serious run for all-conference honors this season. According to Pro Football Focus, Thompson and Shamburger combined to play 686 snaps last season and did not give up a single touchdown.
Tennessee hasn't done well in season openers, going 0-2 in that department under Jeremy Pruitt. That includes last year's embarrassing debacle against Georgia State. The Vols are also likely to be rough around the edges after not having a full complement of players throughout most of preseason camp.
The Gamecocks should be solid defensively, but with so many question marks on offense, it's hard to believe that South Carolina will come out firing on all cylinders against a really good Tennessee defense.
At the end of the day, it will be the team that has the most talent, experience and depth that prevails, and that team is Tennessee. The Gamecocks will fight hard, but the Vols open the season with a win on the road.
Prediction: Tennessee 27, South Carolina 20
Podcast: The SEC is Back Too & Week 4 Preview
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.