No. 16 Tennessee squeaked out a 31-27 win over South Carolina on Saturday night in Colombia to start the season off 1-0.
It wasn’t always pretty, but the Vols managed to sort things out despite allowing a touchdown on the first drive of the game and blowing a two-touchdown lead in the third quarter. With the win, Tennessee has now won seven games in a row dating back to last season. The winning streak is the nation’s second-longest of any Power Five school and the third-longest in all of FBS.
Here are our five biggest takeaways from Tennessee’s season-opening win over South Carolina.
New year, same No. 2
It wasn’t as bad against South Carolina for Jarrett Guarantano as it was at times during last season. But it was the same Jarrett Guarantano that struggled to be consistent last season. Much like his 2019 season, Guarantano’s performance against the Gamecocks was up-and-down.
“Inconsistent,” Pruitt said of Guarantano’s performance following the game. “His decision-making was good. I think there were a couple times, maybe, he was confused a little bit.
“I know he would like to have some throws back. He was high on some throws.”
The Vols starting quarterback finished the game 19-of-31 for 259 yards and a touchdown. Most importantly, Guarantano didn’t turn the football over. He threw some pretty balls, specifically the 32-yard touchdown to Josh Palmer in the fourth quarter that proved to be the difference in the game.
But he also made some really poor throws. In the first half, Guarantano started off 8-for-9 before finishing the half 1-for-6. The Vols led 14-7 at the break although they likely would have been up multiple scores if it weren’t for missed throws by Guarantano. In the second half, the theme continued. Missed throws that ended drives on a dime, but then spirals that led to scores.
“I felt like I was leaning back on some throws,” Guarantano said after the win. “There’s a lot of work to get done with myself and the team, but especially me, I thought I could be a lot better. It’s only up from here. I’m going to go practice my behind off this week and try to fix some of the things. I was high on a little bit of throws falling off, pretending and just seeing like I was going to get hit, but that’s not how I play ball and I just have to go fix those things.
“There’s a lot of room to grow and I’m excited for the future, but I’m happy that we got this win tonight.”
Guarantano has to find a way to play more consistently if Tennessee is going to take the next step this season. Looking at the glass-half-full perspective, the wide receiver group was devastated by contact tracing throughout camp, which has resulted in poor timing on throws. Looking at it from the glass-half-empty perspective, Mr. Inconsistent is still Mr. Inconsistent.
Vols have one of SEC’s best running back duos
Ty Chandler and Eric Gray were already solid running backs. Now they’re really good running backs. To the naked eye, you can already see the difference that first-year running backs coach Jay Graham has made with the duo, especially Chandler.
Tennessee only rushed for 10 yards in the first half, mainly because there wasn’t a concerted effort to run the ball with UT wide receivers running wide open in the South Carolina secondary. But when there was a concerted effort to get the ball to Chandler and Gray in the second half, the production followed.
The duo combined to rush for 126 rushing yards and a touchdown on 25 carries. They added two catches for 41 yards. Individually, Chandler was the leading rusher respectively with 86 yards on 13 carries. Gray rushed for 40 yards on 12 carries, but rushed for a 12-yard touchdown in which he broke three tackles. Gray’s third-quarter touchdown run was the fifth of his career and marked his third straight game with a rushing touchdown dating back to last season.
Johnson and Bennett step up
Redshirt junior linebacker Kivon Bennett made his first career start against the Gamecocks and made the most of it tying a career-high with five tackles. Bennett also had a hit on the quarterback, 0.5 a tackle for a loss and 0.5 a sack.
Bennett wasn’t the only outside linebacker to have a career night. Fellow starting outside linebacker, senior Deandre Johnson, posted a career-high with six tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss and 2.5 sacks. Johnson also forced a fumble at the end of the first half.
“Deandre over the last, really the last year, you really see a young man that is maturing,” Pruitt said. “Not only on the field, but off the field. He wanted to come back and move back into the dorm for his last year. It’s his third year in the system, so he knows what to do, he’s a smart guy.
“He’s a competitor. He plays with confidence. I don’t know what kind of numbers he had tonight but it seemed like he was in on a lot of plays. You know, he’s got a lot of really good football ahead of him.”
The emergence of Johnson is critical to a Tennessee defense looking to replace the production lost by Darrell Taylor. If Johnson and Bennett can consistently meet in the backfield, one of Tennessee’s biggest question marks entering 2020 will be put to rest.
Third down struggles
Tennessee’s offense was only able to put up 24 points outside of Henry To’o To’o’s pick-six in the second quarter. One of the reasons for the lack of success on offense is because of how successful the Vols were on third down. Frankly, there was no success.
The Vols ended the game 1-for-11 on third down. Defensively, they allowed South Carolina to convert 6-of-15 third downs, nearly 50 percent. If Tennessee is going to have a strong 2020 campaign, it must be more successful on third down. You simply can’t win in the SEC if you’re not sustaining drives on offense and not getting off the field on defense.
A win is a win
At the end of the day a win is a win.
Is there a lot to work on and correct? Absolutely. But there’s also plenty of positives to take away. It’s better to have lessons to learn from in a win than in a loss. Pruitt-led teams make adjustments throughout games and throughout the season. They’ll get back to the drawing board and continue to get better.
Tennessee was unable to have a true training camp because so many players missed playing time due to contact tracing. The fact that the Vols are 1-0 to start the season despite being held back during fall camp speaks to this team’s potential.
Tennessee now turns its attention to Missouri for its home-opener next Saturday inside of Neyland Stadium. Kickoff is scheduled for 12 p.m. ET on the SEC Network. The Tigers lost their opening game to No. 2 Alabama 38-19.
“We’re going to celebrate and go back and fix what we can fix tomorrow,” Pruitt said. “Take Monday off and go to work on Missouri on Tuesday.”