The Tennessee Volunteers will kick off their football season this Saturday night. Feels pretty good to finally say, eh?
The Vols face an intriguing matchup in South Carolina to begin the season. Using just your memory, it seems like this should be a game that Tennessee wins somewhat comfortably. South Carolina is returning a 4-8 football team that lost many of its most productive starters from last year.
Meanwhile, ESPN’s Football Power Index Matchup Predictor only gives the Vols a 46.8 percent chance to win the game as of Thursday.
This seemingly won’t be any sort of cakewalk for Jeremy Pruitt and the Vols, but will be a good benchmark to see where this team is starting from this season.
Here is “The Five Count”: Tennessee’s five biggest keys to victory this Saturday night under the lights.
Pass Rush Must Disrupt Carolina’s Pocket-Passing Quarterback
South Carolina stole both Mike Bobo as the Gamecocks new offensive coordinator and quarterback Collin Hill away from Colorado State this offseason. Just last week, Will Muschamp announced that Hill will be their starting quarterback over returning junior Ryan Hilinski.
Unlike Hilinski, Hill is a prototypical pocket-passing quarterback. At Colorado State, Hill had 64 rush attempts for 39 yards in three seasons. Any time Hill is outside of the pocket this Saturday, it will not be intentional by South Carolina.
If Tennessee can get consistent pressure from their pass rush, they should be able to force Hill out of the pocket to where he is not comfortable. Whenever Hill is on the run, consider it a win, especially considering he has had three ACL surgeries in his college career.
Tennessee will be primarily relying on its entire defensive line to create the pressure. The Vols have depth on the defensive line, so look for Aubrey Soloman, LaTrell Bumpus, Greg Emerson, Kurott Garland, and Matthew Butler to all play a key role.
New Receivers Stepping Into the Spotlight
While Tennessee fans have been quick to point out South Carolina’s turnover in the receiver department, Tennessee suffered the same fate this offseason.
Standout wide receivers Jauan Jennings and Marquez Calloway are in the NFL, and the Vols lost their most productive tight end as well. Those three players alone accounted for 65 percent of the receiving yards from 2019. Which begs the question, with almost a complete overhaul, which Tennessee wideouts are going to step up?
Josh Palmer, Brandon Johnson, and Ramel Keaton all return from last year and will be the starting trio, but will all be looking to assert themselves into a more productive offensive role. Tennessee does have a plethora of receivers though, as Velus Jones Jr., Cedric Tillman, Jalin Hyatt, and more should all see some sort of playing time and relied upon in various ways.
With a quarterback who has a history of both long-term and short-term inconsistency, these receivers will need to make a name for themselves, and do the most they can for the quarterback every play they are involved in.
Limited Time with the New Coaching Staff
Jeremy Pruitt had a good amount of turnover on his coaching staff this year with many new faces to be excited about. However, none of these new coaches expected what exactly their first season at UT would look like.
Tennessee brought on multiple new coaches this offseason, including defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh from Colorado, outside linebackers coach Shelton Felton from Akron, and running backs coach and VFL Jay Graham from Texas A&M.
The Vols also moved Brian Neidermeyer to inside linebackers coach from the tight ends, Joe Osovet was promoted to tight ends coach, and AJ Artis was promoted within house to head strength and conditioning coach. What do all of those coaches have in common? They have all had very little time to prepare with their complete positional units.
With already limited practice, and adding in social distancing, quarantining, contact tracing, and more variables, these new coaches have not had near the time they want to with their units. It will be interesting to see if this will be noticeable on the field, and which coaches may be most affected.
Time of Possession Will Be Critical
To go along with the previous point, these college players have had significantly less time to get themselves to game form in the conditioning department. Players from both teams have had less time to practice, scrimmage, and get their bodies in peak playing condition than they have in prior years.
In game one of the season, more than any other game, the time of possession will be the most important factor in the game. Neither team is going to want to rely on an exhausted defensive for a crucial third down stop late in the fourth quarter.
Tennessee cannot afford three-and-out’s, especially in the second half. Running backs Ty Chandler and Eric Gray will be incredibly important in letting their defensive teammates catch their breath as well. The defense already knows that getting off the field is their primary task. It will be up to the offense to determine how much rest they will end up getting.
If the Vols can control the clock while they are on offensive, it should be an important step to winning the ballgame.
Which Jarrett Guarantano Will We See?
Ah, the fifth and most obvious point. Saved the best one for last huh?
Tennessee’s quarterback situation is once again the most polarizing topic leading into the season. Quarterback coach Chris Weinke has talked about the improvements from No. 2 this offseason, granted, these are things we have heard before.
There are two big questions surrounding Guarantano in the season opener.
First, which Guarantano will we see? We have seen him in about every kind of outcome that you can imagine. We’ve seen him play exceedingly well and help win the game, but we’ve also seen him unable to get the engine started in route to a loss.
In his last game against South Carolina, Guarantano threw for 229 yards connecting on 11-of-19 targets. He also threw for two touchdowns and zero interceptions.
Secondly, how often will Guarantano be asked to throw the football? Will Tennessee be able to dominate the ground game while trying to control the clock and just need JG to be a game manager? Or will the Vols be forced to rely on the arm of JG against a tough gamecocks secondary? The time of possession and score should certainly determine Jim Chaney’s plan in that department.