The RTI team makes their picks for the Vols’ match-up with the South Carolina Gamecocks this upcoming Saturday. Managing editor Nathanael Rutherford and staff writer Ben McKee share their predictions for the Vols’ pivotal SEC contest.
Before the season, Ben and I were split on two games with our season predictions for Tennessee. I thought the Vols would lose to Mississippi State and beat South Carolina, but he believed Tennessee would beat the Bulldogs and lose to the Gamecocks.
When it came time to predict the score for the Mississippi State game, we both ended up choosing the Bulldogs. Now that it’s time to choose who wins this Saturday’s game, will one of us change our minds again?
I’ve gone back and forth on this game all week. There are times I think Tennessee should win this game regardless of who starts at quarterback, then there have been times I think the Gamecocks will win because of their great defensive line and dangerous rushing attack.
Simply put, I would feel a lot better about picking the Vols to win this game if Brian Maurer were healthy and starting at quarterback. But barring some sort of last-minute miracle, that’s not going to happen.
I think Tennessee starts JT Shrout on Saturday, marking the second time this season UT will have a QB making his first career start leading the offense. The alternative is a fourth-year junior in Jarrett Guarantano who seems to have…maybe checked out a bit. At the very least, he’s been wildly inconsistent this season, and the last play he made will forever be etched in UT history as one of the worst plays in school history.
If the Vols had Maurer, they could throw the ball more. That’s the area that’s weakest on South Carolina’s defense. They actually have a decent run defense, and their rushing attack on offense is better than the Vols’. If Tennessee tries to turn this into a running contest, I don’t know they can win it.
To me, this game will come down to which quarterback makes the fewest mistakes and can make the most timely plays. Ryan Hilinski has been really good at times this season, but he’s pretty banged up right now. He didn’t play well at all against Florida last weekend, but that Gator defense is also a lot better than Tennessee’s. Granted, Florida didn’t have their two best pass rushers in the game, so maybe UT compares a bit more favorably to what the Gators were able to do because of that.
If JT Shrout can just limit his bad mistakes and not turn the ball over more than once, I think Tennessee has a very good chance of winning. South Carolina has been turnover prone at times, though they’ve only lost the ball twice total in their last three games.
I’m using a lot of words here, and just like I have all week, everything I type makes me waver one way or the other. Sometimes, you just have to go out on a limb. And that’s what I’m going to do here, I guess.
Pick: 24-20, Tennessee
MVP: Jauan Jennings, WR
Call me crazy, but I think this is a game where Jauan Jennings just balls out. He’s historically done pretty well against South Carolina, catching a touchdown against them in 2016 and again in 2018 (he was injured for the 2017 game), and he’s been the go-to target in the passing game for all of Tennessee’s quarterbacks this season. I also think he’ll get some wildcat QB snaps, which will only add to his impact on the game.
Tennessee’s quarterback situation just isn’t the greatest right now. That’s the foundation of this prediction. If Brian Maurer were starting, I’d feel a lot better about Tennessee’s ability to move the football. But he’s not, and UT will have to rely on a redshirt freshman making his first career start or a fourth-year quarterback who has had a miserable 2019 season.
What would give me hope for Tennessee’s chances of winning would be how well it’s been able to run the football of late. The offensive line is playing its best football in years led by Trey Smith, and Tim Jordan is beginning to break out as a junior.
But the strength of South Carolina’s defense? That’s their defensive line led by Javon Kinlaw, D.J. Wonnum, and Aaron Sterling. That trio relentlessly creates problems for opposing offenses, and as Jeremy Pruitt said multiple times this week, this line probably the best D-line Tennessee will face this season.
Offensively for South Carolina, the Gamecocks have been up-and-down. Led by true freshman quarterback Ryan Hilinski, Carolina’s offense has experienced the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. If Tennessee can get to the quarterback and fluster the freshman, the Vols provide themselves with a great chance of winning. But Tennessee’s defensive front hasn’t done a great job of generating pressure this season, and they’ll be facing a very good South Carolina offensive line.
Running back Rico Dowdle is out due to injury, but Clemson graduate transfer Tavien Feaster still poses as a threat following a career-high performance against Florida last week. Tennessee has struggled to stop the run for most of the season. Pair that with Hilinski’s ability to throw the football, and the Vols could face a long day if they don’t get to the quarterback.
The good news for Tennessee fans is that I picked the Vols to lose to Mississippi State. I’m sure I’ll be wrong once again.
Pick: 27-17, South Carolina
MVP: Tavien Feaster, RB
Feaster is coming off a career-high 175 rushing yards on 25 carries against a very good Florida defense. For the season, he’s carried the football 82 times for 492 rushing yards and four touchdowns. He’s averaging 6.0 yards per carry, and against a Tennessee rush defense that I’m still not buying into, I expect him to have a big day.