Prediction Panel: Tennessee at South Carolina

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    Photo by Anne Newman/RTI

    The RTI team makes their picks for the Vols’ match-up with the Alabama Crimson Tide this upcoming Saturday. Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford, staff writer Ben McKee, and contributor Charley Collier all share their predictions for this Saturday’s contest.

    Nathanael’s Pick

    When I thought about the Auburn game a couple weeks ago, I said all the intangibles lined up in Tennessee’s favor. The Vols were coming off a bye week, were facing an Auburn team in disarray, and had them at a disadvantage with a really early kick-off. The only reason I didn’t pick Tennessee to pull that upset was because the Vols’ offensive line seemed very out-matched, and we hadn’t seen anything like the play-calling we saw from the offense up to that point.

    Well, just like with the Auburn game, I think one team in this Saturday’s match-up has all the intangibles in their favor. Only this time, it’s not Tennessee.

    South Carolina is coming off their bye week while the Vols just played two very physical teams in Auburn and Alabama. The Gamecocks are getting their first big night game of the season in this match-up, and they’re getting arguably their best defensive player back for this game in DJ Wonnum.

    Throw in the extremely unfortunate news about Trey Smith’s health, and I’m not feeling very optimistic about UT’s chances.

    I try my hardest to “keep it real” with everyone who reads and listens to our content at RTI. If you want me to be a homer, I’m sorry. I try not to be. If you want me to be a “negaVol,” I’m sorry. I try not to be. I just tell it how I see it, and I don’t see Tennessee winning this game.

    Can the Vols win it? Absolutely. This is a more winnable game than I expected it to be at the beginning of the season, that’s for sure. But I just think this game is at the worst possible point in the schedule for Tennessee. The Vols would be much better off playing Charlotte this week instead of next week and not catching the Gamecocks coming off a bye week as well.

    Say what you want about Will Muschamp as a head coach, but he’s undefeated against the Vols. And he’s a good defensive coach. Giving him an extra week to prepare for Tennessee’s offense worries me.

    It wouldn’t shock me one bit if Tennessee wins this game, but I just don’t see it happening. South Carolina’s run defense is bad, but the Vols have had trouble running the ball against any SEC defense period this season. The Gamecocks have really good corners too, and they have plenty of speed and play-making ability on offense.

    I fully expect Tennessee’s defense to get a couple takeaways from a turnover-prone Jake Bentley, but I don’t think it will be enough. I think the Vols cough up the ball at least once, and I think the Gamecocks find a way to win an ugly game.

    Pick: South Carolina 23-17

    MVP: Deebo Samuel, South Carolina WR

    The Vols’ secondary is still dealing with injuries, and I worry about how much pressure Tennessee’s front seven can generate. Even if the Vols do pick off Bentley a few times, I expect Deebo Samuel to get his receptions and maybe a few carries. He’s very dangerous, and I don’t like how he matches up with UT’s defense right now.

    Ben’s Pick

    On Tuesday’s podcast, I picked Tennessee to win 27-24.

    With the game being one day away and the more I think about the game, the less I like Tennessee’s chances of winning. I just don’t like the match-ups for Tennessee. Everything that the Vols do well, South Carolina can match up with it, such as Tennessee’s vertical passing game, which has produced big plays over the last two games. Jauan Jennings, Josh Palmer, and Marquez Callaway are the best players on the offense, but South Carolina’s Rashad Fenton, Steven Montac, Jaycee Horn, and Keisan Nixon are all capable of mitigating the Vols advantage through the air.

    That’s not to say the passing game can’t get going – it absolutely can – but Tennessee’s receivers will definitely have its work cut out for them. It’ll be crucial the Vols can establish the run in order to take pressure off the passing game. With the way the offensive line is playing and with the loss of Trey Smith, I believe they’ll have a hard time protecting the quarterback and opening up running lanes.

    Defensively for Tennessee, it’ll receive a boost on the back end with Todd Kelly Jr. set to receive the most playing time he has all season. The secondary will be key for Tennessee’s defense to be successful against South Carolina’s star receivers Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards. Kelly Jr. and Bryce Thompson – who will be playing with a chip on his shoulder as he returns home – could prove to be the MVPs of the game. But if the secondary struggles and can’t force Jake Bentley into some turnovers, it’ll be a long day for Jeremy Pruitt’s defense.

    South Carolina has disappointed this season, getting off to a 3-3 start. Quite frankly, the Gamecocks have more play-makers on both sides of the ball. With the Gamecocks coming off a bye week and it being a night game in Williams-Brice, I think South Carolina edges out a close win over the Vols, though no result would surprise me.

    Pick: South Carolina, 27-21

    MVP: South Carolina’s front seven

    South Carolina’s front seven has only produced 10 sacks on the season, but it’ll have a prime opportunity of increasing that number against a bad Tennessee offensive line. Jarrett Guarantano enters the game banged up following a beating at the hands of Alabama. You can bet your last dollar Will Muschamp will pressure Guarantano early and often. With the way Tennessee’s O-line is playing, it’ll be hard for Guarantano to get the ball to his play-makers at receiver, which is the strength of the offense.

    Charley’s Pick 

    Can Tennessee finally beat Will Muschamp? Well things just got a whole lot tougher after losing Trey Smith for this Saturday and the foreseeable future. In order to make a bowl game, the Vols basically need to go 2-2 against Kentucky, South Carolina, Missouri and Vanderbilt, assuming they beat Charlotte. This is definitely a winnable game, but the Vols could very easily lose it too, especially with a Gamecock team coming off a bye.

    Offensively, it is really just going to come down to how well the offensive line can play. Getting Jahmir Johnson back will be a huge boost, as long as there are no setbacks for him. Tennessee was running the ball decently against Auburn right up until the point he got hurt, and his value is a lot higher than he gets credit for.

    South Carolina has gotten out to a slow start in nearly every game, scoring just 13 first half points in their three losses, so the Vols need to try to jump on them early. Tyson Helton will need to once again get creative with his play-calling and find ways to get the ball in the hands of his play-makers with a beaten up offensive line. Bryson Allen-Williams is a force for South Carolina at linebacker, and the Vols need to find ways to take him out of the play. There will be opportunities in the passing game, and the Vols can’t be afraid to air it out, even if it means abandoning the run game. Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings both have the advantage over the opposing secondary, so any chance they can get in man coverage, they should take.

    Defensively, I expect the Vols to have a good game. This defense is a lot better than the numbers show, and Saturday will be a great opportunity. South Carolina has a very balanced offense, and their quarterback, Jake Bentley, has been known to be a tad careless with the football. The Vols will need to force a turnover or two in this one, especially in a hostile road environment. The front seven needs to have a big game, and they will have every opportunity to do so. The Vol defense is just as good as, if not better than, the Gamecock offense.

    Tennessee also has the advantage on special teams. The Vols have continued to excel in kick and punt coverage, and both Brett Cimaglia and Joe Doyle have been very efficient thus far.

    Really, this is a match-up of two very evenly matched teams. When you have a close game like this, I give the edge to the team with the more experienced head coach, playing at home, and coming off a bye week. Tennessee is still pretty banged up from last weekend, and South Carolina will barely edge this one out.

    Pick: South Carolina 37  Tennessee 35

    MVP: Deebo Samuel, South Carolina WR   

    Samuel is one of the more versatile and explosive players in the SEC, and just about every big play comes through him. Expect the Gamecocks to try to exploit things with their formations to create favorable match-ups and get the ball in his hands all night.