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’s how each position performed in Tennessee’s season-opening win over South Carolina.
Jarrett Guarantano wasn’t great, but he wasn’t bad either. The most important box Guarantano needed to check off against South Carolina was taking care of the football. He did that, not throwing an interception. QB No. 1 for the Vols finished 19-of-31 for 259 yards and a touchdown.
Where Guarantano did struggle is with his accuracy. He missed far too many throws that should have been fairly routine completions. The inaccuracies were a result of a couple of different factors. Guarantano missed some throws simply because he was inaccurate, but he also missed some throws because the offensive line didn’t give him a pocket to step into as he was getting rid of the football, causing him to throw off his back-foot and sail some throws. There were also timing issues with Tennessee’s receivers, which is to be expected when you take into consideration that the Vols struggled to keep receivers on the practice field during fall camp due to contact tracing.
There’s reason for concern with Guarantano, but there’s also reason for optimism. Sure, Guarantano missed some throws that he has to make, but he also made a couple of really nice throws. I believe you’ll see a more crisp Guarantano against Missouri next week following an extra week of working with his new group of wide receivers.
Tennessee’s running backs weren’t asked to do a ton against South Carolina, especially in the first half when they only rushed for 10 yards as a result of Jim Chaney choosing to air it out a little. But when they were asked to make a play, they did just that.
Ty Chandler and Eric Gray combined for 126 rushing yards and a touchdown on 25 carries. The duo averaged 5.04 yards per carry. Individually, Chandler was Tennessee’s leading-rusher with 86 rushing yards on 13 carries. Gray rushed for 40 yards on 12 carries and had a 12-yard rushing touchdown to start the third quarter. Gray also looked good in pass protection.
The wide receivers had a couple of balls hit the ground that they should have caught, but overall, life without Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway went well for the Vols in game No. 1. Tee Martin’s new-look receiver room passed the eye test and doesn’t appear to be an issue going forward.
Senior Josh Palmer led the room with six catches for 85 yards and a touchdown. Fellow senior Brandon Johnson had an incredible one-handed catch on his way to three catches for 73 yards. USC grad transfer Velus Jones Jr. got in on the action with five catches for 29 yards, and sophomore Ramel Keyton had two catches for 20 yards.
It didn’t appear that Tennessee’s tight ends were asked to do a ton in the passing game and they didn’t have any glaring busts while blocking in the run game. Princeton Fant had a nice catch for 11-yards and was open on another route, but Guarantano couldn’t get him the ball. We also saw a good bit of Jacob Warren when Tennessee was in 12 personnel (one back, two tight ends).
Tennessee’s offensive line wasn’t bad against South Carolina, but there’s plenty of room for improvement as the Vols shift their attention to Missouri week. Guarantano was only sacked twice, but he faced pressure on a fairly consistent basis that prevented him from stepping into some of his throws.
Chaney was committed to the pass more than the run in the first half, but Tennessee’s offensive line didn’t necessarily open up any holes for Chandler or Gray either. The Vols were much better running the football in the second half, however. Their inconsistencies were a productive of the offensive line being hit by contact tracing during fall camp. Like Guarantano and the receivers, I expect for the offensive line to be more crisp against Mizzou as they continue to get reps in practice.
Tennessee’s defensive line didn’t flash against South Carolina and struggled to generate a push against the run or the pass. The Vols d-line produced zero sacks, zero tackles for loss and just one hit on the quarterback courtesy of Matthew Butler. Sure, Tennessee was missing Darel Middleton due to “health issues,” but the loss of Middleton doesn’t explain the lack of production against Carolina’s offensive line.
South Carolina threw for 290 yards and rush for 89 yards in large part because the defensive line couldn’t generate a push.
Tennessee’s defensive line should be taking Deandre Johnson and Kivon Bennett out to eat all week long because the outside backers bailed them out. Johnson had a career day, tallying 2.5 sacks which was the most by any defender during Week 1 of the SEC 10-game season. The senior also had 2.5 tackles for loss, a forced fumble and six tackles. Meanwhile, Bennett had five tackles, 0.5 tackles for loss and 0.5 sacks.
Freshman Tyler Baron got in on the action as well, recording 2.0 tackles for a loss.
Henry To’o To’o had the play of the game on defense recording his first career interception that resulted in a 32-yard pick-six to put the Vols up 14-7 in the second quarter. To’o To’o also had six tackles and a hit on the quarterback.
Jeremy Banks and Quavaris Crouch didn’t have as well of a game. Banks had five tackles and a tackle for a loss, but had two bone-headed penalties that gave Carolina a first down and 15 free yards. Crouch struggled in pass coverage as Carolina picked on him with tight end Nick Muse, and despite starting, Banks replaced Crouch because of it.
Tennessee’s defensive backs did some good things here and there, but ultimately the group allowed 290 yards to a South Carolina receiver room that lacks playmakers outside of Shi Smith. Smith had a team-high 10 catches for 140 yards and a touchdown.
The Vols were without Shawn Shamburger who did not make the trip to Colombia and sophomore safety Jaylen McCollough was banged up, which hurt their personnel grouping. Freshman Doneiko Slaughter had to start at nickle and though he did some good things, Smith also got the best of him at times. Bryce Thompson was forced to move to safety with McCollough not starting, which allowed Kenneth George Jr. to get the start at corner opposite of Alontae Taylor. The results from George were not good as he was benched in the second half after being beat on a couple of different plays.
Regardless of how healthy the secondary was, Tennessee still shouldn’t have allowed 290 yards through the air to that South Carolina receiver room.
It wasn’t perfect, but Tennessee’s special teams played a large role in the Vols starting off the season 1-0. Brent Cimaglia missed a 46-yard field goal when the protection up front wasn’t great and freshman Will Albright’s first career snap was a disaster, but there were more positives than negatives.
Paxton Brooks was terrific, pinning South Carolina inside of the 20-yard line on five of his six punts. His final punt resulted in a win as it bounced up and hit a Gamecock in the leg, allowing Jimmy Holiday to fall on the fumble and secure the win. Brooks was just as good on kickoffs. Five of the six sailed through the end zone for a touchback.
There were other positives. Cimaglia bounced back with a successful 27-yard field goal, while Velus Jones Jr. had a nice return of 40-yards on one kickoff. Albright’s first snap didn’t go according to plan, but sophomore Matthew Salansky was able to come in and snap good balls for the rest of the game. Tennessee did not have any coverage busts either.
When you consider the fact that Tennessee barely practiced special teams during fall camp due to too many players missing as a result of contact tracing, Saturday night was a win with how the special teams performed in total.
A win is a win. It wasn’t the smoothest of games for Tennessee, but in this COVID season following a fall camp in which contact tracing really hampered the Vols, you happily live with the result. As we’ve come to expect with Jeremy Pruitt and his coaching staff, they made adjustments throughout the game despite a sloppy start and a blown two-score lead in the third quarter. To win on the road in the SEC given the circumstances calls for a good grade in my book.