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    (Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

    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.

    Ben’s Pick

    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.

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    Blake’s Pick

    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.

    Noah’s Pick

    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

      Photo By Caleb Jones/Tennessee Athletics

      Managing editor Ben McKee answer your best questions about Tennessee athletics and anything else in our weekly mailbag, Insider Mailing.

      “Is Cade Mays starting Week 1?” – Dustin Cody

      “Why isn’t Cade Mays cleared by the SEC yet????” — Lisa Talley

      Ben: It sure doesn’t look like it. Looks as if it may be Darnell Wright at right tackle and Jerome Carvin at right guard. If a Hail Mary is completed, Mays probably slides in at right guard, though there is a possibility he could play right tackle as well.

      Your guess is as good as mine, Lisa. I think it’s pretty ridiculous that in a year in which eligibility doesn’t matter, the SEC is concerned about sticking to a rule pertaining to eligibility. If it were a normal year, sure, I would understand him not receiving immediate eligibility because he hasn’t graduated yet and he’s transferring from one in-division rival to another. But again, the NCAA has deemed this a year in which eligibility doesn’t matter. So why the concern? The NCAA swung and miss on this fastball right down the middle.

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      “Thoughts on Jeremy Pruitt receiving a contract extension and raise” – VolStorm

      Ben: I’m a fan. It’s mainly for recruiting purposes, but I don’t think it’s crazy to give him a slight bump based off how he finished last season. It was a remarkable coaching job to finish the season on a six-game winning streak after starting 1-4. Pruitt is only 13-12 after two seasons, but I personally believe that he’s ahead of schedule when you consider how he is recruiting and where he took over for Butch Jones. The talent is better, the coaching is better and the culture is infinitely better.

      “Who is the one player Tennessee can’t let beat them on Saturday night? Also which pair of britches would you pick for UT to wear Saturday night?” – Sam Smith

      Ben: On South Carolina’s offense, Tennessee can’t allow wide receiver Shi Smith to beat them. South Carolina’s wide receiver room is lackluster. Smith is the only one on paper who poses a threat as the only wide receiver the Gamecocks have who has played in more than 12 games and has caught at least 10 passes. There’s no reason for Smith to have a big night. Defensively, Tennessee can’t allow Israel Mukuamu to have the type of game he did last year against Georgia when he intercepted Jake Fromm three times.

      I would wear the orange britches if I’m Tennessee to offset the all-black uniforms that South Carolina will be wearing. The Vols chose to go with the all-white uniforms, however.

      “Will Tennessee rush for 150+ yards on Saturday?” — VolJuice

      Ben: Touchdown. South Carolina allowed 158.0 rushing yards per game last season, and its front seven has gotten worse over the course of the offseason. The Gamecocks still possess talent and players who can make life tough on Tennessee, but it must replace first round pick Javon Kinlaw and linebacker DJ Wonnum, two players who were instrumental to Carolina’s defense. On the flip side, Tennessee’s rushing attack has gotten better thanks to the development of the offensive line and running backs. I would be surprised if Tennessee doesn’t have a big night running the football.

      “If you could pick any player from a Derrick Dooley or Butch Jones team to add to this roster, who would it be?” — @phil_breedlove

      Ben: Without a doubt Derek Barnett. Tennessee’s defensive line struggled throughout camp, and so did the edge rushers. Part of that was due to contact tracing, but it’s never a good sign when the head coach openly talks about the defensive front playing with a lack of physicality. Barnett would instantly change that outlook. I’d say he do a pretty good job of replacing the production left behind from Darrell Taylor as well.

      “What unit are you most interested to see play Saturday?” – Evan Reeves

      Ben: The quarterback position, aka Jarrett Guarantano. If Tennessee is going to have a strong 2020 campaign, he has to be much better than he was last year and more consistent. Guarantano had a really good fall camp, and was noticeably more confident. He was checking off all of the coaching staff’s boxes. Will it translate to gameday? I’m really intrigued to see how it plays out. This Tennessee football team would take a humongous step forward this season if Guarantano plays consistently well, which I think he’s capable of doing.

      “If you had to pick one player who would provide the best pass rush against South Carolina, who would it be?” — Michael Miller

      Ben: Kivon Bennett because he is the upperclassman and he ended last season very strong. He’s likely in for another strong campaign, but he’s going to need help. The Vols desperately need Deandre Johnson and Roman Harrison to step up, and for Tyler Baron and Morven Jospeh to have an impact as freshmen.

      “With JG being better in practice than he is in games do you think the less than game like atmosphere due to COVID could actually help?” — Jordan Tyler Moore

      Ben: This is a great question. I think it will, but honestly, I believe we would see an improvement in Guarantano even if it were a normal year. He’s truly had a good fall camp and the buzz around him is different this time around. He’s more confident and that’s leading to more consistent play in practice. We’ll see if it translates to gameday.

      “What freshman on both sides of the ball makes the biggest difference this year?” — DepressedBobKesling!!!

      Ben: On offense, wide receiver Jalin Hyatt will have the biggest impact. He’s had a tremendous fall camp and looks to be ready to contribute from game No. 1. I expect for him to play significant snaps against South Carolina. Freshman offensive lineman Javontez Spraggins is the sneaky pick on offense.

      Defensively, I’m looking at Key Lawrence and Doneiko Slaughter. Both have had outstanding fall camps and though they weren’t listed on the depth chart Tennessee released, I expect to see both early and often. They’ve been very impressive since arriving on campus.

        (Photo courtesy of Tennessee’s Twitter account)

        Tennessee will don its standard all-white road uniform when it takes the field at Williams-Brice Stadium on Saturday night against South Carolina, but there will be a few changes to the Vols classic road look.

        On Friday, the Tennessee Football twitter account released a video of what appears to be defensive back Bryce Thompson in his new No. 0 jersey showing off the white uniform, which will now include double stripes for the first time since 2014. But the jersey also included two new patches.

        The No. 45 orange patch on the right shoulder honors the late Johnny Majors, who passed away in June at the age of 85. Majors starred at Tennessee as a player and as a head coach.

        Majors played at Tennessee from 1953-56, earning All-American honors twice and finishing as a runner-up for the Heisman Trophy in 1956. After winning a national championship as a head coach at Pittsburgh in 1976, Majors returned to his Alma mater to replace Bill Battle in 1977. He coached the Vols until 1992, leading Tennessee to three SEC titles in 1985, 1989 and 1990, as well as a 35-7 thumping of No. 2 Miami in the 1986 Sugar Bowl.

        The other patch depicts a black and white hand coming together to hold the famous University of Tennessee trademark of the torch.

        The patch, called the “unity patch” recognizes protests against racial injustice and inequality that the Tennessee football team, led by players and coaches, has been vocal about on campus and throughout Knoxville this offseason.

        Earlier in the offseason, third-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt said that the Vols would wear black uniforms at some point during the season in support of protests against racial injustice, although there has been no official release of what those uniforms will look like or what game they will be worn.

        Tennessee and South Carolina are scheduled to kick off at 7:30 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.

          In this episode of the Rocky Top Insider Podcast, managing editor Ben McKee is joined by Brad Matthews to discuss this Saturday’s game between No. 16 Tennessee and South Carolina. They also discuss Jeremy Pruitt’s contract extension and raise.

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          Make sure you don’t miss any episodes on the RTI podcast network! Subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts here! And make sure to subscribe to our YouTube channel for another way to experience the podcast!

            (Photo via Tennessee Athletics)

            Written by RTI contributor Spencer Morrell

            Tennessee’s 2019 football season could best be described as having two distinct parts. The first part concluded with a loss to Alabama on October 19, and the second part began with a must-win game against South Carolina on Oct. 26. The Vols lugged a 2-5 record into last year’s South Carolina game, as well as a difficult quarterback situation.

            In the loss to Alabama the week prior, freshman quarterback Brian Maurer had been knocked out the game with a concussion. It led to redshirt junior Jarrett Guarantano taking over signal-calling duties. Guarantano began the 2019 season as the starter, but he struggled mightily throughout the first half of the season which led to him being benched in favor of Maurer. Guarantano then committed a critical late-game fumble in the loss to Alabama, which again led to his benching. Redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout would finish out the game.

            As a result, Tennessee came into the South Carolina game with uncertainty swirling around their quarterback room. Maurer was unavailable to play due to his concussion, and Guarantano seemed an unreliable option. Shrout was available, but the young quarterback’s accuracy and consistency had been a major issue up to that point in the season. This left a massive question unanswered. Who was going to take the first snap at quarterback? The answer: Jauan Jennings.

            Tennessee’s unquestioned senior leader took the first snap that afternoon out of the wildcat formation. This was done perhaps to settle the team and set the tone for the game. Jennings was the leader of the team and he would show it that evening. Shrout then took over on the third snap of the game and played for most of the first quarter. The Vols’ offense was languid with Shrout at the helm, and he was pulled from the game late in the first quarter. Guarantano was again thrust into the game just as he had been the week prior. This time the result would be different.

            Guarantano went on to throw for 229 yards and two touchdowns. Jennings was the target for most those passes and both touchdowns. Jennings would finish the day with a career-high 174 receiving yards in addition to his two touchdowns. One of those touchdowns turned out to be the turning point not only in the game but in Tennessee’s season.

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            Midway through the third quarter Tennessee trailed 21-17. The offense had marched down inside the South Carolina 20-yard line but faced a 3rd and 14 from the 19. It was an obvious passing situation and South Carolina pinned their ears back on a blitz. Guarantano stood in the pocket as long as he could as South Carolina linebacker T.J. Brunson bore down on him. Guarantano cut a pass loose towards the endzone just as he took a massive hit from the arriving blitz. It was a hit that broke a bone in Guarantano’s left wrist. The pass was a beauty that Jennings caught in the endzone right before he also took a blistering shot from a South Carolina defensive back. Jennings somehow held onto the ball, and Tennessee took the lead. It was a lead they would not relinquish as the defense would shut out South Carolina in the second half. The Vols would go on to defeat the Gamecocks 41-21, earning their third win of the season.

            That play was the turning point of the game, and as it turned out the turning point of the season. It exhibited the toughness that would become the trademark of that Vols team moving forward.

            Guarantano’s broken left wrist had a screw placed in it during surgery the day after the South Carolina game. Six days later he was the starting quarterback for Tennessee in a homecoming victory over UAB. Another display of toughness for a team that desperately needed it. This was the team’s fourth win of the season as six wins and bowl eligibility, once thought impossible, now became the goal for the Vols.

            The Vols carried that toughness with them to Kentucky, and it helped them secure their fifth victory of the year with a fourth quarter goal-line stand against the Cats. The Vols then traveled to a bitterly cold Faurot Field in late November to face Missouri in a bid for their sixth win and bowl eligibility. Their toughness would earn them their coveted sixth win as Guarantano would throw for a career-high 415 yards in the biting cold and with a screw in his left wrist.

            The next week, during a massive rainstorm, Tennessee’s offensive line would push Vanderbilt all over Shields-Watkins Field on the way to securing its seventh victory by way of a bruising rushing attack. The Volunteers would go on to win eight games after a come from behind win in the Gator Bowl versus Indiana, ending the season on a six-game winning streak. The longest winning streak in the nation behind national champion LSU.

            The 2019 South Carolina game changed the trajectory of Tennessee’s season, and quite possibly the trajectory of the program. The Vols’ mentality seems to have shifted for the better. After a woeful start to the year, Tennessee had to turn their season around, and impressively they managed to do so.

            The Vols faced mountains of adversity before last year’s game against the Gamecocks, and this year has been no different as the offseason has been a struggle for nearly every team. Last year, Tennessee’s win over South Carolina set them on a path to success for the rest of the season. That same possibility remains this year.

            A win over South Carolina on Saturday would send the Vols into the all-SEC gauntlet with confidence. This year’s meeting with South Carolina is not the turning point as it was last season, rather it is the starting point. A different date on the schedule, but just as important. Instead of a chance to turn the season around it is a chance to start the season right. A chance for the Volunteers to set the tone for their season. A season that is going to be one of the toughest they have ever played.

              (Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics)

              Tennessee will be looking to pick up where it left off last season when it travels to South Carolina as a 3.5-point road favorite on Saturday night.

              The Vols closed the year by covering the spread in six of its last eight games, including a six-game winning streak straight up. Their defense was a major factor, with the ‘under’ hitting in the last five games of the season.

              South Carolina finished 2019 on a different trajectory, going 1-5 ATS in its last six games. The Gamecocks were also cashing ‘under’ tickets, with four of its last five resulting in lower-scoring games than projected.

              Tennessee picked up a 41-21 win over the Gamecocks at Neyland Stadium on Oct. 26 last season, easily covering as a 4-point home underdog. The total sailed ‘over’ the listed number (46), snapping a four-game ‘under’ streak in the head-to-head series.

              The Vols opened as a 3-point favorite at BetOnline in this season’s matchup when the SEC revealed the updated schedule in mid-August. However, the line was bumped down to 2.5 when the game week line was posted on Sunday afternoon.

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              Bettors have been taking Tennessee throughout the week and the game has now passed through a key number (3) to 3.5. The total opened at 48 but has seen a significant move down to 43.

              This is set to be the lowest total in a Tennessee vs. South Carolina game since 2009, when it closed at 42.5. That game went ‘over’ in a 31-13 win for the Vols.

              Tennessee has only had one total lower than 43 points since 2017—a 42-point mark in what turned out to be a 17-13 win against Kentucky last season.

              The Vols have not been a road ‘chalk’ against an SEC team since 2016, when they were 7-point favorites in a 45-34 loss to Vanderbilt. They have been a road favorite against South Carolina five times since 1995, winning and covering the spread in four of those games.

              This will be the 27th time Tennessee has been a single-digit road favorite since odds were first recorded in 1995. The Vols have won 20 of the previous 26 matchups, covering at a 19-7 ATS clip.

              South Carolina has gone 12-6 in its last 18 home games and has won five of its last six against the Vols at Williams-Brice Stadium. The capacity will be limited to 20,000 fans this season due to COVID-19—betting markets are giving teams 1.5-points of home field advantage this season due to limited attendance.

              Home teams in college football went 4-16 ATS last week. Saturday’s game kicks off at 7:30 p.m. ET on the SEC Network.