The long awaited start to the 2020 SEC football season begins this weekend. A full day of conference matchups will be capped off with a divisional game pitting the Tennessee Volunteers against the Gamecocks of South Carolina in Williams-Brice Stadium. While Columbia is never an easy place to pick up a victory, the capacity in Williams-Brice will be reduced from 80,250 to approximately 20,000. Here is our Last Word on the game breakdown for Tennessee versus South Carolina.
The Volunteers will look to continue their strong end to 2019, where they finished on a 6-game win streak. Tennessee has not won an opening game since the 2017 season, when they defeated Georgia Tech in overtime at the Chick-fil-A kickoff game in Atlanta. Coach Jeremy Pruitt is looking for his first opening game win as a head coach. These two sobering facts highlight the importance of starting off the 2020 season with a win for the Volunteers. This schedule is brutal, with 5 matchups against AP top 1o teams on the horizon. When we analyzed the 2020 Volunteers schedule overall, we noted the importance of starting strong. A 1-1 start could crush confidence and put Tennessee in an uphill battle to avoid their second consecutive 1-4 start. Let’s look at how the teams matchup.
2020 Tennessee vs South Carolina Breakdown
What: SEC East Divisional Matchup: TENN @ USC
Tennessee Record: 0-0 (0-0)
South Carolina Record: 0-0 (0-0)
Where: Williams-Brice Stadium, Columbia, SC (SEC Network)
When: Saturday, September 26, 2020, 7:30pm EST
Tennessee Offense, South Carolina Defense Breakdown
Tennessee Rushing Attack
The Vols have a great opportunity to establish a run game early and crush the will of this Gamecock’s defense. The Tennessee offensive line has been heralded among the best in the country this off season, and for good reason. The addition of Cade Mays via transfer coupled with the return of star tackle Trey Smith establishes the Vols trenches as one of the best. Add into the equation elite recruits such as Wayna Morris and Darnell Wright along with the Gator Bowl MVP Eric Gray, and one can see the reason for optimism. An important note: Tennessee is still awaiting Mays’ transfer release from the SEC at this point after the NCAA approved his appeal last week. The Vols are proceeding as if they will have the talented transfer available. Even if they do not, they do still have experienced depth behind the star guard.
The Gamecocks have to replace a lot of key pieces along their defensive line. This Tennessee team is not the group you want to test inexperience against. This is a great edge in the game the Volunteers will have to exploit to leave the Palmetto state with a victory. Establishing a dominant running game will open up play action and allow routine throws to get quarterback Jarret Guarantano in a rhythm. This will also force the Gamecocks to play man coverage, which Guarantano has shown he is more comfortable reading. A strong rushing performance will be pivotal to Tennessee’s game plan.
Matchups For The Passing Game
Speaking of the passing game, how does Tennessee’s aerial attack take another step in 2020? How will the beleaguered starter Jarret Guarantano respond in his senior season? And how will the Vols replace fan favorite stars in the receiving corps such as Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway? These are all questions fans will be asking as Tennessee take on South Carolina.
Let’s start with the obvious question: will the real Guarantano please stand up? The returning senior is one of the most head-scratching questions on this Tennessee offense. Consistency is the ultimate goal for the Guarantano as he looks to rewrite his legacy in Knoxville. For the first time in his career, he has consistency in his coaching staff with returning offensive coordinator Jim Chaney. Chaney has a reputation for drastically improving the play of his quarterback, and Guarantano is his next project. Last year, the South Carolina contest was nearly the comeback game for Guarantano before an injury stalled his comeback. He will look to replicate his success while avoiding injury this Saturday.
For the receivers, there is a lot of unproven talent in this group. Senior Josh Palmer is now the star of the show in Knoxville, and fans are looking for a breakout season from the longtime role-player. Sophomore Ramel Keyon will be called upon to be a bigger contributor this fall as well as the number 2 wideout. Apart from these two, Southern Cal transfer Velus Jones Jr. provides a really interesting wild card. The senior speedster is an absolute playmaker. It will be interesting to see how he gets involved early for the Volunteers. In all, the talent in this group outweighs the inexperience. If Guarantano can stand tall behind an improved line and make the throws, the receivers have the ability to make plays. As long as he avoids the catastrophic mistake, Tennessee can use it’s passing game as a great compliment to their rushing attack.
Tennessee Defense, South Carolina Offense Breakdown
Front Seven Concerns?
Tennessee has a lot to prove on this side of the trenches. They do have a number of returning starters, including Aubrey Solomon and Darel Middleton. Greg Emerson even more size in the trenches as Tennessee looks to impose it’s will on the offense. This defensive line is finally showing the size that Jeremy Pruitt wants to see in his front seven. In addition, the linebackers may be one of the most talented the Vols have enjoyed since Curt Maggit, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and AJ Johnson were causing havoc in Knoxville. Henry To’o To’o is a legitimate rising star in Knoxville, and the depth at the position is much stronger than in recent years.
However, early reports out of camp indicate that Coach Pruitt is unhappy with this position groups play to date. Specifically, the third year coach indicated he was frustrated with the lack of pass rush he has seen from the defense. The loss of Darrell Taylor to the draft hurt this teams pass rushing ability. While they have plenty of run stoppers across the front, they lack the pass rushing specialist at this time. Deandre Johnson has a chance to step into this role, but he will clearly need to prove himself more than he has in fall camp. This unit has the talent to stifle the Gamecocks rush, but will need to create some pressure to keep the newly appointed starting quarterback Collin Hill uncomfortable all night.
Questions for the Gamecocks Passing Attack
The addition of Offensive Coordinator Mike Bobo really creates an interesting dynamic for this game. Bobo is a proven commodity in the SEC at creating offensive production. Be that as it may, the cupboard seems bare in Columbia. The Gamecocks are sorely missing the likes of Bryan Edwards or Pharoh Cooper. This year’s receiving corps for South Carolina lacks the one or two game-breaking studs that they have enjoyed over the past few seasons. Shi Smith is by far the best playmaker on this team. He is a great individual player, but will need some supporting cast to create consistent drives.
With so little returning production, there are more questions than answers for the passing attack. In addition, Will Muschamp decided to bench incumbent quarterback Ryan Hilinski for Colorado State transfer Collin Hill after a close position battle in camp. Coupling these two facts together, one can begin to wonder how much chemistry has been developed in the Gamecocks passing game. Hill understands Bobo’s system well at this point, but can he develop repour with his receivers this quickly?
Tennessee Secondary Strength
Contrast this with the deep chemistry the Tennessee secondary has been able to build with all starters returning in 2020. In addition, there may be not be a better coaching staff for defensive back development with defensive coordinator Derrick Ansley and Coach Pruitt. Bryce Thompson will look to build on his solid sophomore campaign as Alontae Taylor and Kenneth George Jr. duke it out for the number two cornerback spot. The safety position is loaded with experienced talent including Trevon Flowers and Jaylen McCollough. This secondary should cause fits in the passing game provided Tennessee’s front can create some pressure. Even with this question, the experience in the secondary coupled with the questions across the line of scrimmage means Pruitt can dial up some exotic blitzes and trust his backs with man coverage.
The Last Word
In the end, after looking at the breakdown of the Tennessee South Carolina game, the talent disparity between these teams created from recent recruiting classes will ultimately decide this contest. As stated, this Carolina team does not have the offensive fireworks that have given Tennessee teams fits in recent history. There is no Bryan Edwards, Alshon Jefffery or Marcus Lattimore to strike fear into the Tennessee defense. This defense has a ton of confidence coming into the season.
Meanwhile, the Vols offense does have more questions to address in game one. There is still no proven commodity at quarterback, and the leaders from last years recievers will be missed. Still, the offensive line should be good enough to create opportunities for the raw talent on the depth chart to make plays. This will be a classic SEC defensive duel between two of the best defensive minds in the game. Ultimately, the game will come down to who has the playmakers that can step up and make a big play when needed. Tennessee has won the recruiting battles in recent years along with returning more overall production. That will be the difference in a close, ugly battle. Expect the Volunteers to come home 1-0 for the first time since Butch Jones roamed the sidelines in a leather hat. Tennessee 23, USC 16.
— 😷 Brianna Paciorka 😷 (@bpaciorka) September 5, 2017