Can you believe that it’s here?
The Tennessee Volunteers kick off the much-anticipated (and long awaited) 2020 season this Saturday against the South Carolina Gamecocks. The Vols finally broke their losing streak against Will Muschamp in 2019. Can they double it up this weekend and win their second straight against a Muschamp-coached squad?
Let’s dive into the first game preview of the 2020 season and find out.
- All-time series: The Vols lead the all-time series, 26-10-2, and won the last meeting in 2019.
- Longest win streak: Big Orange won 12 games in a row from 1993-2004.
- Interesting series fact: South Carolina is just 3-17 on the road, but is 7-9-2 at home against the Vols.
- 2019 offensive and defensive rankings: Tennessee finished the 2019 season with the 100th-ranked offense (75th passing, 87th rushing) and the 23rd-ranked defense (16th passing, 48th rushing). The Gamecocks came in at No. 96 in terms of total offense (74th passing, 82nd rushing ) and No. 66 in terms of total defense (80th passing, 66th rushing).
What To Watch For
- Collin Hill: Mike Bobo, South Carolina’s new offensive coordinator, coached Hill when he was the main guy at Colorado State. It makes sense that Hill won the starting job considering the crazy offseason that the SEC has had. He knows the system and knows what Bobo wants out of his players. Hill has been productive when he’s healthy, so he should be an effective player this year as long as he stays out of the medical tent.
- Tennessee’s secondary vs. South Carolina’s receivers: Shi Smith is still around, but the Gamecocks lost some major pieces to their passing game. Bryan Edwards was one of the country’s most underrated receivers and will be hard to replace. On the other hand, Tennessee returns the majority of its starting secondary and the group is entering its third year under Jeremy Pruitt. Can the Vols’ experienced defensive backs flex on the inexperienced SC receivers?
- Jarrett Guarantano: You knew we would get here, eventually. Will we see the good Jimmy G or the bad Jimmy G? If we get good, then Tennessee’s potential has no limits. But if we get bad, then the Vols tend to look average at best. The kid has plenty of confidence and is tough as hell, so we will get his best effort no matter what, but Tennessee needs production more than anything this year.
- Tennessee’s offensive line: This is supposed to the best and deepest group in recent memory. The Vols are stacked on the offensive line thanks to recruiting and Cade Mays’ transfer from Georgia. As of now, Mays still hasn’t been cleared by the SEC to play, but the thought is that it will take care of itself before Saturday. Regardless, the offensive line will certainly be something to monitor throughout the game.
- South Carolina’s running game: The thought was that MarShawn Lloyd would be an integral part of the ground attack, but that’s no longer the case after he tore his ACL a month ago. Both Tavien Feaster and Rico Dowdle —the team’s top two backs from last year— are gone and the Gamecocks are shuffling some guys up front. There’s a lot of uncertainty, here, so the Vols should be in good shape to exploit some mismatches. We’ll see if that’s the case on Saturday.
- QB Jarrett Guarantano: Like it or not, Guarantano will determine Tennessee’s ceiling in 2020.
- RB Eric Gray: Man, Year Two should be an exciting one for Gray. The Vols will likely run the offense through him, so hopefully he takes the needed steps in his development to become the guy.
- WR Josh Palmer: The Vols’ senior receiver is the go-to-guy after the departures of Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings. He has all the talent in the world to be the No. 1 target.
- DL Darel Middleton: He’s the guy after Emmit Gooden was dismissed earlier in the year.
- LB Henry To’o To’o: Make no mistake: This is Henry To’o To’o’s defense.
- CB Bryce Thompson: Will this be the first game in an All-American season for Thompson? We’ll find out soon enough.
South Carolina Gamecocks
- QB Collin Hill: We have no idea how Hill will look in his SEC debut, but he’s been productive when healthy, so don’t be surprised if he looks pretty good.
- RB Kevin Harris: Who will be the lead guy at running back? Harris averaged 8.5 yards per carry in 2019 and was second the team with four rushing touchdowns. The Gamecocks may deploy more of a committee, but Harris should get the most looks.
- WR Shi Smith: Much like Tennessee’s Palmer, Smith is the holdover from a roster that lost a lot of talent at his position. Regardless, the Vols will have to keep an eye on him this weekend.
- DL Zacch Pickens: A five-star recruit from the 2019 class who is supposed to take over for the recently departed Javon Kinlaw. It’s a tall order, but he has the talent to get it done.
- LB Ernest Jones: He led the team in tackles last year and is an integral part of the defense. He’ll be key in helping stop the Vols’ ground game.
- DB Israel Mukuamu: The anchor of the secondary and a guy that led the team with four interceptions last year.
Injuries To Know (non-COVID related)
- TE Austin Pope: He had back surgery over the summer and Pruitt said that he won’t play this week. It’s a big one because Pope is a big part of the Vols’ running game.
- RB Carlin Fils-Aime: This isn’t an injury situation. It’s a NCAA eligibility thing, but Fils-Aime’s absence leaves the Vols with just two running backs that have played in the SEC.
- RB/TE/WR Dee Beckwith: The freshman athlete won’t travel to Columbia, due to an ankle injury.
- RB MarShawn Lloyd: This was a brutal blow to the Gamecocks’ offense. Lloyd tore his ACL back in August and will miss the entire 2020 season. He was one of SC’s top recruits from the 2020 class.
- TE Jaheim Bell: A meniscus issue will likely keep Bell out for a couple of more games.
- WR Chad Terrell: An ACL injury will keep him out of the game.
I really, really have no idea how this game is going to go.
If anyone tells you their sure as to how things will play out on Saturday, I’d just go ahead and keep walking. There’s simply too much unknown heading in to this matchup.
Regardless, the Vols should have the leg up simply based off the fact that they have a lot of the same pieces last year and they aren’t trying to change anything at any major positions. Pruitt and Jim Chaney are both back. Guarantano is back. The offensive line is back and even got stronger over the offseason. The defense is made up of primarily the same guys and missing pieces such as Darrell Taylor and Daniel Bituli appear to have been replaced with productive players.
The Vols aren’t breaking in a new quarterback or offensive system. They aren’t missing one of their best offensive players. And they aren’t replacing a ton of talent on the defensive side of the ball.
But we all know how Muschamp is somehow able to keep these games close and ugly (outside of last year). So, anything is possible on Saturday night.
At the end of the day, however, the Vols should be able to go into Williams-Brice and get the dub. A 1-0 start is most certainly on the horizon.