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Opponent Q&A: Tennessee

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Chattin’ ‘bout the Vols with Rocky Top Talk.

Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

To gather some more insight on how things have been going for the Tennessee Volunteers, we sat down with Terry Lambert of Rocky Top Talk, who was kind enough to give us thoughtful responses to our burning questions. Check ‘em out below.

Jeremy Pruitt really rescued the circus that was UT’s coaching search this past offseason, and already has a signature win over Auburn. So far, what’s been the biggest difference between him and Butch Jones?

Oh man, how much time do you have here? They are polar opposites in every single way. Butch Jones tried to play CEO and Jeremy Pruitt is just a good ole country boy who isn’t interested in anything other than coaching football. There aren’t any gimmicks. There aren’t any catchphrases. What you see is what you get with Jeremy. That approach has really resonated with Tennessee fans, considering how awful things got at the end of last year with Butch. I said it when he was hired and I still stand by it — Tennessee fell into a really good football coach and perhaps a perfect fit for Knoxville.

Speaking of Auburn, tell us a little more about what UT fans learned after that big win. Were there any specific strengths on display that you think the Vols can carry through the rest of the season?

They learned that Pruitt and his staff can develop football players. A big thing with Butch Jones was the lack of development within the program, despite some big time recruiting classes. Guys like Jarrett Guarantano, Bryce Thompson, Alontae Taylor, Josh Palmer and several others have come a long way in just several months.

Secondly, they learned how Pruitt can impact a game from the sidelines. Several times during that Auburn game, Pruitt could be seen calling last second audibles for his defense. He’s literally telling his team what’s about to happen from the sidelines. As I said above, Butch’s biggest interest wasn’t always being a football coach. That’s clearly not the case with Pruitt and it’s been fun to watch a real coach operate in game.

So, Jarrett Guarantano and Keller Chryst. Is there a legitimate quarterback controversy brewing, or is it just message board fans running wild?

I really don’t think so. It’s funny how quickly people forgot what Jarrett did down on the Plains just two weeks ago. Alabama is going to make anyone look bad before they take their foot off the gas. I think that’s what happened here with Guarantano and Chryst. Keller had every opportunity to win the job in camp and was outplayed from start to finish by Guarantano. If Chryst starts on Saturday, it’s because Jarrett is legitimately hurt, but Pruitt has maintained that he should be good to go.

Other than Will Muschamp’s inexplicable Volunteer voodoo, what concerns you the most about this game?

For me it’s offensive consistency for Tennessee. They’ve started games so incredibly slow, but always seem to figure something out in the second quarter. They can’t keep digging out of these holes though. The offensive line hasn’t been very good this year, which has made running the ball pretty tough. All they really had against Auburn was the 50-50 deep jump balls, which Tennessee won time after time. I don’t think that’s a consistent formula though. So to answer your question, I’m worried about their ability to establish the run on Saturday night. Because this staff is going to try to run the ball no matter what.

Gamecock fans are very familiar with Marquez Callaway (and generally triggered by Tennessee receivers named “Marquez”). Who are other playmakers they should be keeping an eye out for?

I’m sure y’all know about Jauan Jennings. He’s back and seems to finally be getting healthy again. He made a few big plays against Auburn. The guy you probably don’t know is Josh Palmer, another big receiver that can run. He was Tennessee’s best player against Auburn, making several tough catches and bailing Tennessee out a bunch on third down. Running back Ty Chandler continues to get more work in the passing game, since the rushing attack has been struggling. Look for him to make some plays in the middle of the field with Tennessee’s big receivers demanding so much attention outside.

UPDATE: Tennessee will be without their starting left tackle Trey Smith on Saturday, who is out indefinitely with blood clots. It’s the same issue that forced the former five-star recruit to miss all of spring ball. This shifts the offensive line combo quite a bit. Smith was easily the most talented lineman they had, so this is pretty concerning as far as protection and run blocking goes. Tennessee is now down two starters on the offensive line after losing Brandon Kennedy week one.

Finally, care to make a prediction?

For two years I’ve done these previews with various blogs and I haven’t been able to predict a Tennessee win. They’ve been absolutely awful since I took over Rocky Top Talk, but they are really starting to turn a corner. This defense is actually turning into a decent unit. They’re getting their hands on the football and finally generating some pressure. I think that, coupled with Jake Bentley’s interception struggles, could be the deciding factor on Saturday night. It’s going to be an absolute dogfight that either side could win in the fourth quarter — I just really like the progress I’ve seen from this team over the last month.

Tennessee 23, South Carolina 20

Thanks again to Terry, and look out for GABA’s responses on Rocky Top Talk!