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Opponent Q&A: Tennessee

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Talkin’ ‘bout the Vawls with Rocky Top Talk.

Photo by Andy Lewis/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

We had questions, and Terry Lambert of sister site Rocky Top Talk had answers about tomorrow’s gotta-have-it-no-pressure clash in Neyland Stadium.

With Brian Maurer banged up and on the shelf this weekend, who do you expect to take the field between Jarrett Guarantano and J.T. Shrout? Given Guarantano’s ups and downs throughout his career so far, would Vols fans rather see Shrout get the start?

Tennessee fans would absolutely rather see Shrout. We’re kind of at a “what more do you need to see?” point with Guarantano. He’s in his fourth year and surrounded by a pretty solid supporting cast and now has Jim Chaney calling the shots for him. After all of that, he somehow regressed. Tennessee has life when Brian Maurer is in the game, but everything becomes so much more difficult with Guarantano under center. The flip-side is that we don’t know a thing about JT Shrout, other than the fact that he’s looked pretty raw in his handful of snaps against Chattanooga and in the spring game.

Pruitt has played this one close to the vest, but I’m expecting it to be Guarantano on Saturday. However, he won’t hesitate to throw Shrout in if this go south. One other thing to consider here is Jauan Jennings, who should get plenty of looks in the wildcat. He was quarterback in high school, so if things REALLY go south, Tennessee might just go full Kentucky out there.

It feels like yet another crucial, hard-fought matchup is on tap for the Gamecocks and the Vols, with both teams needing a win to stay afloat. Does a successful season hinge on a victory Saturday, or does UT have other opportunities to show progress?

It doesn’t for Tennessee because I think fans understand the quarterback situation. I don’t think many are going to fault Jeremy Pruitt here if he can’t get it done with Guarantano under center. We’ve seen this program come to life over the last three weeks, notching a win over Mississippi State and playing Alabama tough into the fourth quarter. Quite honestly, Tennessee’s season was over after that BYU loss. We’re just looking for evidence of progress — and right now we’re seeing that. Somehow, they’ve got a slim chance at finding their way to six wins. Everyone is fairly confident about Tennessee’s chances against Vanderbilt, Kentucky and UAB. They’ve just got to find a way to spring an upset either here, or against Missouri. A win here would be monumental.

This is actually just a rhetorical question, but given how badly both of our respective teams were hosed by officiating last week — man, doesn’t life in the SEC kinda suck right now?

Boy, those SEC referees put on a show on Saturday, didn’t they? I’m not one to complain about the officiating, but I’m not sure how you can look the other way after what we saw. I mean, stopping a trick play as it develops for…. Nothing? An unnecessary roughness call as Tennessee gets the stop they needed late down eight points? Phantom holds in the redzone? It almost felt orchestrated. Tennessee probably wouldn’t have won that game, but they certainly were robbed of an opportunity to find out. And I applaud Jeremy Pruitt. He was a maniac on the sidelines on Saturday night, as he should have been. But he was calm after the game, taking a professional approach about things but still calling them out.

Looking back at the beginning of the season, both South Carolina and Tennessee got off to ugly and unexpected starts. Do you feel like UT has rebounded and progressed well after the shocker to Georgia State?

You know it’s kind of strange to be sitting at 2-5 here because most Tennessee fans have bought back into Jeremy Pruitt. The start of the season was brutal, but the bounce back has been impressive. It’s not showing up in the win column right now, but it’s so obvious if you watch this team play. This isn’t the same team from week one. Something that you probably don’t know is that Tennessee lost three senior starters along with standout sophomore cornerback Bryce Thompson for those first two games. Senior linebacker Daniel Bituli and Thompson have since returned, but that took some adjusting from the staff. You’re finally starting to see glimpses of it all coming together now.

Obviously, Tennessee’s story will be told down this stretch of winnable games to end the year. But heading into this one, we feel pretty good about the development of this team.

What matchup concerns you the most about this game, and conversely, where do you feel the Vols can excel?

It’s Tennessee’s quarterback spot vs. virtually any defense right now. South Carolina isn’t impressive by the numbers defensively, but virtually everything has been difficult for Guarantano this season, again, despite better play around him. He’s going to have to take care of the football and make the right reads, which is something he hasn’t been able to do with any consistency.

One area of growing confidence is the rushing attack, which is finally coming to life behind a revamped offensive line. Two five-star freshman tackles and star guard Trey Smith are moving bodies at the line of scrimmage right now. Tim Jordan and Ty Chandler have been running hard, too. Tennessee actually had decent success against Alabama in the run game, so look for them to really lean on it Saturday considering the quarterback situation.

Finally, care to make a prediction?

This is a really tough one to call. I want to believe in Tennessee’s offensive line and running game, but the quarterback play is a huge concern. However, I don’t think Jeremy Pruitt lets Guarantano beat him. Whether it’s Jennings or Shrout, it feels like he’s going to come into this one with a couple of different plans of attack. I just think this team and this program is starting to believe in each other. Everything is starting to come together and I really think we see that pay off for the rest of the year.

This one comes down to the final possession — as every Tennessee-South Carolina matchup does — but this time Tennessee’s run game does enough to get it done.

Tennessee 20, South Carolina 17

Thanks again to Terry for his thoughtful responses, although hopefully his prediction is totally off-base.