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South Carolina vs. Tennessee: Keys and a pick

This could be another close one.

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

The South Carolina Gamecocks take on the Tennessee Volunteers under the lights tonight in a fierce battle of teams that desperately need this win for bowl eligibility. For those purposes, this just might be the biggest game of the season so far, since a loss will dramatically alter South Carolina’s outlook for the rest of the year. No pressure or anything.

The keys

Get off to a good start. Here’s the thing: As thrilling as South Carolina’s second-half comebacks have been, wouldn’t it be even more exciting if the Gamecocks played that way from the opening whistle? Tennessee, as luck would have it, is even more challenged in that department — the Vols haven’t scored a first-quarter touchdown against an FBS opponent all year. Given that games in this series are frequently decided by a touchdown or less, the Gamecocks could be playing with fire if they nap for a quarter or two. If South Carolina wins the toss, I’d strongly prefer deferring to the second half and letting the defense out there first to feed off the crowd and set the tone. I’m not sure my heart can handle watching another lightning-fast empty possession to start the game.

Get to the quarterback. Jarrett Guarantano took some vicious licks against Alabama last week, and while Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt says he’s fine, we’ll see how well he moves around out there. The Vols are the only SEC team with a rushing attack as moribund as South Carolina’s, but they have a bunch of big, athletic playmakers at receiver to help make up for it. If the Gamecocks can hamper Guarantano’s ability to get guys like Marquez Callaway the ball, that’s a good sign.

Take care of the ball. This is an obvious one that is key in pretty much every game, but it’s been especially important for the Gamecocks lately. Coach Will Muschamp pointed out that so far, South Carolina has suffered a 52-point swing with turnovers, which yeah, is kind of a lot to overcome. Jake Bentley needs to dial it back with his interceptions, the receivers need to actually make the plays they can make, and the running backs need to hold on to the ball. Easy, right?

The pick

This has been a really strange and competitive series over the past decade or so, with most games boiling down into fourth-quarter nailbiters. I don’t expect anything different this year, but I’m leaning toward the Gamecocks. They’re coming off a bye week and healthier than they’ve been in a while, they’re at home (and finally with a night-time crowd!), and overall, I just think they’re still a bit better than Tennessee right now. The Vols’ upset win over Auburn was a big deal and certainly something that got me worried, but at this early and transitory stage in the Pruitt era, I’m not sure how consistently UT can dial up a performance like that. I’ll go with a 24-21, 27-21 type of score in favor of the Gamecocks, but I’ll be sweating this one out.