The Rocky Top Insider team makes their picks for No. 16 Tennessee’s matchup with the South Carolina Gamecocks this Saturday. Managing editor Ben McKee, as well as RTI contributors Blake Von Hagen and Noah Taylor share their predictions for the Vols’ first game of 2020.
Saturday’s game between Tennessee and South Carolina is going to be a slow, low-scoring affair. On paper, the Vols have more talent from top-to-bottom and have the edge in most matchups. But South Carolina has the edge in the most important category possible — the Gamecocks weren’t affected by COVID-19 during fall camp near as much as the Vols were.
The Vols consistently battled players missing time during camp due to contact tracing. It wasn’t until about 10 days ago in which Tennessee began to get back to somewhat of a sense of normalcy. Event then, it still wasn’t all that normal.
This game will be won in the trenches. Both teams have the advantage when you look at their respective offensive line going up against the other’s defensive front. Tennessee struggled to practice with physicality up front during fall camp and South Carolina must replace three key pieces in its defensive front.
Whichever team’s offensive line that performs better will win this game and my money is on the offensive line that is more talented — Tennessee’s. The Vols will be able to do just enough on the offensive side of the ball in the running game, and Jarrett Guarantano will manage the game well, as Tennessee starts the season 1-0.
Pick: Tennessee, 24-20
MVP: Tennessee RB Eric Gray
I’m of the belief that Tennessee’s offensive line will have a big night against a South Carolina defensive front that has some newness to it, which in return, will lead to Tennessee’s backs having a big night as well. Gray will benefit the most, leading the team in rushing, and starting off the season with a 100-yard game.
Tennessee’s offensive line is going to be the difference maker in this game. A talented starting five that centers around Trey Smith will be too much for South Carolina’s revamped defensive front to handle. The Vols also have an experienced quarterback under center in Jarrett Guarantano and he is coming off a strong finish to the 2019 season. He won’t have the big names of Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway to throw to, but Josh Palmer and Brandon Johnson should be able to pick up the slack. South Carolina allowed the Vols to rack up 351 passing yards and three touchdowns a season ago.
The Gamecocks will likely have to work out some kinks on the offensive side of the ball in the early going, as grad transfer Collin Hill will be starting at quarterback. They also lost their top three running backs from last season, so it could take some time to find a rhythm. It’s tough to pick Tennessee to win comfortably in a season-opener after last year’s fiasco and the slow start against Indiana with plenty of prep time, so I’ll take the Vols to win this game by less than a touchdown. The small home crowd gives Tennessee an extra advantage.
Pick: Tennessee, 27-21
MVP: Tennessee WR Josh Palmer
Palmer is Guarantano’s most experienced weapon in the passing game. Chaney will make it an emphasis to get him some easy completions across the middle early in the game and Palmer will take advantage. Look for him to score a key touchdown as well.
Don’t be surprised if there is a lot of sloppy football across the SEC on Saturday, including Tennessee.
The pandemic-dominated offseason has effected teams in different ways and so a slow start out of the gate wouldn’t be shocking for the Vols on Saturday night.
I like Jeremy Pruitt and company to make early adjustments and get off on a much better note than they did a year ago.
South Carolina is breaking in first year offensive coordinator Mike Bobo along with transfer quarterback Collin Hill who is among his first SEC start after suffering an ACL injury last season at Colorado State. Expect a strong showing by Tennessee’s defense.
Offensively, I’m optimistic for many of the reasons Blake pointed out: a strong, big and experienced offensive line as well as a season quarterback under center in Jarrett Guarantano. I especially like Tennessee running back combo between the experienced Ty Chandler and explosive Eric Gray rushing behind that offensive line. I think that’s where a lot of the Vols success will come from on offense.
Pick: Tennessee, 24-13
MVP: Tennessee LB Henry To’o To’o