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 winners and losers from Tennessee’s season-opening win over South Carolina.
Winners: Deandre Johnson and Kivon Bennett
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.
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.
Loser: Tennessee’s secondary
South Carolina starting quarterback Collin Hill threw for 290 yards against the Vols secondary. Yes, the secondary was depleted due to injury. Starting nickle Shawn Shamburger didn’t make the trip due to injury and starting safety Jaylen McCollough didn’t start after being banged up throughout the week in practice. As a result of the injuries, Bryce Thompson had to slide over to safety, freshman Doneiko Slaughter started at nickle in his first career game and backup Kenneth George Jr. started at corner opposite of Alontae Taylor.
The starting lineup didn’t make it throughout the game. George struggled and was benched for McCollough who ultimately entered the game at safety in the second half. This allowed Thompson to slide back over to corner where he’s best at, though he performed well at safety.
Tennessee’s secondary improved a tad after the personnel adjustment, but allowing 290 passing yards to a South Carolina offense that lacks playmakers outside of Shi Smith is unacceptable. Smith had a career day hauling in 10 catches for 140 yards and a touchdown.
Winners: Ty Chandler and Eric Gray
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.
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.
Loser: Tennessee’s inside linebackers in pass coverage
Tennessee’s secondary struggled in coverage, but they weren’t the only ones that struggled. The Vols’ inside linebackers also struggled against the pass. Sophomore Quavaris Crouch was beaten multiple times when matched up with Carolina tight end Nick Muse in coverage. Crouch was beaten twice on one drive and benched in favor for fellow sophomore Jeremy Banks. Even Henry To’o To’o was beaten in coverage. Muse had four catches for 50 yards and should have had more if Hill didn’t miss him on a couple of throws over the middle of the field.
Banks’ two bone-headed penalties weren’t ideal either. He was called for a late hit out of bounds and an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty when he ripped off the helmet of a South Carolina offensive lineman.
Winner: Henry To’o To’o
Though To’o To’o was beaten a time or two in coverage, the heart-and-soul of the defense made the play of the game for the Vols. To’o To’o played well overall tallying six tackles, a hit on the quarterback, and picking off his first career pass and returning it 32-yards for a touchdown. The pick-six gave the Vols a 14-7 lead in the second quarter.
To’o To’o to the ?
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) September 27, 2020
Loser: Tennessee’s third down offense … and third down defense
Tennessee’s offense was only able to put up 24 points outside of 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.
Winner: Tennessee’s special teams
Special teams wasn’t 100 percent perfect, but it was successful in the win over South Carolina. Brent Cimaglia missed a rare kick from 46-yards out with the protection up front failing him, but bounced back with a 27-yard field goal the very next possession.
Freshman Will Albright also had a poor snap that led to Carolina having great field position in the first quarter. But when you consider the fact that Tennessee was unable to truly practice special teams throughout fall camp due to players being out because of contact tracing, you should be willing to give some grace.
Paxton Brooks was the MVP of Tennessee’s special teams unit. Brooks punted the ball six times and averaged 40.1 yards per punt, but downed five of his six punts inside of the 20-yard line, and had a long of 51-yards. On kickoffs, five of Brooks’ six kicks sailed through the end zone for touchbacks.
Brooks’ last punt ended up closing out the game for the Vols. The punt, which would have pinned Carolina inside of the 20 once again, hit the leg of a Gamecock and freshman Jimmy Holiday was able to jump on the fumble.
Loser: Tennessee’s late-game execution
Holiday’s fumble recovery bailed Tennessee’s offense out. The Vols had the chance to put the game away on offense twice late in the fourth quarter and failed to do so twice.
Tennessee got the ball back leading 31-24 with 8:06 remaining in the game on the 50-yard line due to a bad South Carolina punt. A beautiful chance to bleed the clock, score and put the game away. The Vols squandered the opportunity, going three out because of a Ramel Keyton drop on second down and a high throw from Jarrett Guarantano on third down.
South Carolina ended up driving down the field and kicking a field goal on the following possession. The Vols once again got the football back with a chance to put the game away by picking up a couple of first downs and bleeding the clock. This time, they got the ball back on their own 25-yard line with 3:36 remaining in the game.
Ty Chandler had a couple of nice runs to begin the drive, picking up a first down and forcing South Carolina to use two of its three timeouts. But then Riley Locklear committed a false start that stalled the drive. The Vols got backed up and were forced to punt the ball away with 1:30 remaining. Lucky for Tennessee, the punt hit the leg of a Carolina player causing a fumble.
If Tennessee truly wants to be a good football team this year and exceed expectations it must put games away when given the chance.