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2018 Opponent Preview: Tennessee

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The Vols are hoping they have their ticket back to relevance in the form of new coach Jeremy Pruitt.

Knoxville News Sentinel-USA TODAY NETWORK

After finally getting a well-deserved bye week, the South Carolina Gamecocks return to action when they welcome the Tennessee Volunteers to Columbia on Oct. 27 for the teams’ traditional date on Halloween weekend. As is fitting for the occasion, extremely weird and horrifying things tend to happen in this game. Gamecocks coach Will Muschamp also boasts some interesting voodoo over the Vols: He’s never lost to them as a coach. Can that magic continue?

Last meeting: It’s at this point that I’ve realized just how many root canal games South Carolina was involved in last season, since I think my brain sanitized most of these memories as a defense mechanism. This game, full of field goals and all kinds of hideous play, might take the cake, though: the Gamecocks eked out an incredibly ugly and stressful 15-9 win in Knoxville that came down to a last-second goal-line stand (and also involved some intriguing clock operation that gave the Vols what felt like a hundred chances at the end zone). A.J. Turner came up big for the Gamecocks in this one, and the defensive line enjoyed a disruptive performance against young Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. Notably, South Carolina also won despite a missed extra point, which is usually an unavoidable harbinger of doom.

Last season: The Vols entered 2017 with a certain degree of hype, anointed by many as a dark-horse pick in the SEC East and ranked in the Top 25 (albeit at 25th). Things got off to a good start with a rousing overtime victory against Georgia Tech in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff event, and though enthusiasm was tempered a bit with an improbable, heartbreaking loss to Florida, the Vols weren’t written off yet. But then Georgia happened: The Dawgs absolutely crushed Tennessee at home, shutting them out to the tune of 41-0, and it was all downhill from there. UT finished the season 4-8 overall and winless in the SEC, becoming the first Volunteers team to achieve both feats. Suffice to say, head coach Butch Jones found himself summarily unemployed.

Player to watch out for: Tennessee is yet another team in the East with an uncertain situation at quarterback. Guarantano returns, but didn’t exactly light the world on fire as a freshman, and neither did Will McBride. But the Vols landed 6-foot-5 Stanford transfer Keller Chryst, nephew of Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst, who was formerly a four-star recruit and had somewhat of an up-and-down career with the Cardinal. Stanford head coach David Shaw recently raved about Chyrst, saying he was “too talented” to be a backup (which makes one wonder why he was encouraged to transfer, since college coaches aren’t particularly known for being selfless), so we’ll see if he can turn the Vols’ offense around.

Prognosis: The real story for the Vols this season is how the program will look under new coach Jeremy Pruitt, who is the third Nick Saban disciple to land a head coaching gig in the SEC East. Tennessee endured a wild and frankly hysterical coaching search in the offseason, but it ultimately got a hard-nosed, defensive-minded coach who is highly thought of after he built great defenses at Florida State and Georgia. But unlike Kirby Smart, Pruitt won’t be greeted with a loaded cupboard (although Butch Jones recruited rather well at Tennessee). Given just how miserable the Vols were in 2017, it’s hard to project a winning record, but they might be able to score a 6-6 finish if things gel quickly and they get some breaks. The schedule — which includes a season-opener against West Virginia and road games against South Carolina, Georgia, and Auburn, as well as the annual clash against Alabama — just doesn’t do them any favors.