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2019 Opponent Preview: Tennessee

How much can the Vols improve in Year 2 under Jeremy Pruitt?

Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

After hosting Florida, the South Carolina Gamecocks take another road trip to Knoxville, Tenn., for their customary Halloween weekend game against the Tennessee Volunteers. The Vols, now entering their second year under the leadership of their own Saban disciple in Jeremy Pruitt, have lost three in a row to the Garnet and Black. South Carolina will look to keep that streak alive in its quest to claw back up the SEC East ladder, but UT is set on improving, too.

Last meeting: As usual for this series, it wasn’t pretty, and was in fact incredibly nerve-wracking, but the Gamecocks pulled out a hard-fought 27-24 win after rallying from a 12-point deficit. South Carolina looked absolutely dead in the water in the first half, trailing 14-9 at the break, and fans were struggling to grapple with the implications of losing to a Tennessee team that would ultimately finish 5-7. Fortunately, Jake Bentley got his head screwed on straight after a miserable performance against Texas A&M, Rico Dowdle ran for 140 (!) yards, and the Gamecock defense forced a turnover on downs to save the day. Whew.

Last season: As previously mentioned, the Vols limped to a 5-7 (2-6 SEC) record, finishing last in the SEC East, but with some encouraging signs of progress: Tennessee notched two big upsets along the way, toppling both No. 21 Auburn and No. 12 Kentucky to give fans some hope. No one expected an instant turnaround, and the Vols still got creamed by hated Alabama, but they actually resembled something of a competent football team in 2018.

Player to watch: Jarrett Guarantano has had to win not one, but two different quarterback battles in his time as a Vol. Now in his fourth year with the program, he’s the unquestioned starter and key to the Tennessee offense. He’ll have to learn under his fourth offensive coordinator (Jim Chaney, poached from Georgia) and hope his offensive line holds up, but there’s no question the Vols need him to continue his progression to have a successful season.

Prognosis: Tennessee’s got some interesting variables that should work in its favor this year: a top-15 recruiting class, the widely praised addition of Chaney, and a more forgiving schedule than last year’s brutal grind. Throw in a veteran quarterback with some other key returners and the Vols should be in line for another step forward and a bowl bid. This is still a winnable contest for South Carolina, but it’s also been a highly competitive series in recent years, and Neyland Stadium is cursed ground for Gamecocks. I wouldn’t expect anything less than another slobberknocker.