With great anticipation, a most unusual late-September season opener awaits No. 16 Tennessee and South Carolina on Saturday.
No. 16 Tennessee is set to begin the season with lots of familiar parts in place. South Carolina is trying out some newcomers of note on its depth chart.
There has been little familiar for either side in the buildup to a Southeastern Conference game Saturday night at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, S.C.
The Vols are not only in the national rankings but hold a decided leadership edge they consider a major advantage on the road.
“I feel like we’ve got really good leadership all over our team,” said Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt, whose team was 8-5 a year ago in his second season. “There’s lots of unknowns until you go out there and play together. I think there’s a willingness there to fight and find a way.”
Because of a strong finish to 2019, the Volunteers enter the season with glowing expectations. They hold a six-game winning streak, including four straight SEC victories, entering Saturday.
The winning streak began last Oct. 26 with a 41-21 romp past South Carolina.
The Gamecocks don’t have that type of momentum after a 4-8 season, including losses in their last three outings. So there have been plenty of roster questions.
“You’ve got to have a lot of depth,” South Carolina coach Will Muschamp said. “We’re headed into the unknown as far as the season is concerned, so we’ve got to create depth on our football team and have a bunch of guys ready to go.”
The Gamecocks announced Colorado State graduate transfer Collin Hill as their starting quarterback. Hill beat out 19-year-old Ryan Hilinski, who started the final 11 games of the 2019 season as a true freshman.
Muschamp said there “wasn’t any one thing. It was the totality of the competition.”
Hill played in 18 games (23 touchdown passes, 11 interceptions) with 11 starts at CSU. But in some ways, Hill was way ahead of the curve at South Carolina. First-year Gamecocks offensive coordinator Mike Bobo was Colorado State’s head coach for the past five seasons.
South Carolina could be breaking in a new running back. ZaQuandre White, a transfer from Iowa Western Community College, drew rave reviews and looked strong in workouts. He seems to be shaking off a hamstring ailment from earlier during preseason camp. Kevin Harris has been the most consistent running back, Muschamp said, though he missed the final scrimmage to attend his sister’s wedding.
South Carolina’s defense created concerns in September scrimmages. Muschamp said mistakes in the secondary in particular need to be cleaned up.
Tennessee has a clearer picture at the outset.
Jarrett Guarantano is the first-string quarterback. He threw two touchdown passes against the Gamecocks last year and the Vols are in their second season under offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
“I would suspect that (Guarantano) has got to have a lot more confidence heading into this season, as opposed to the previous season because the terminology is the same and the people around him are the same,” Pruitt said. “I feel like he has demonstrated that at practice.”
Tennessee has won its last three games away from home. With only about 20,000 fans to be permitted for this game because of the coronavirus pandemic, South Carolina’s homefield advantage will be reduced.
“We’re not playing in front of 80,000 people this year,” Muschamp said. “You can’t rely on anything externally to get you excited. It has to come from within.”
The only other opener between the teams came with a 0-0 tie in 1942 in Columbia, also played on Sept. 26.
Tennessee leads the series by 26-10-2, including a 9-7-2 record in Columbia.
This is Tennessee’s latest date for a season opener since 1962, and it’s the first time the Volunteers begin with an SEC game since 1988.
–Field Level Media