Tennessee played well enough in spurts to beat a team that went 4-8 last year.
Will that be good enough to register a winning record this season?
But for the here and now, that doesn’t really matter.
Tennessee found a way to subdue South Carolina on the road 31-27 Saturday night in the long-awaited season opener for both teams.
The Vols put together three impressive touchdown drives, scored a defensive touchdown, and put the shackles on the Gamecocks’ offense for most of the first half.
But an early special teams blunder, some errant throws by quarterback Jarrett Guarantano and a leaky secondary made you realize 16th-ranked Tennessee has a long way to go to be a legitimate top 25 team.
“We won, and that’s what we came here to do,’’ said UT coach Jeremy Pruitt. “I’m proud of them proud of the courage they had to tackle the unknown.’’
Pruitt didn’t seem too disturbed by the number of mistakes his team made. Instead, he was just glad to play, given all the adversity that has faced his team, and college football in general.
“You hate someone had to lose the game,’’ Pruitt said, “because of what all the players have gone through.’’
Football is tough enough.
Weaving through a pandemic makes if that much more difficult.
But while over a dozen FBS college games have been canceled or postponed thus far and the SEC started three weeks later than originally scheduled, Pruitt and his players – and fans everywhere – were glad to get this weekend under their collective belts.
That’s why Pruitt wasn’t bristling over a low punt snap that handed South Carolina prime field position or a few missed throws or two personal fouls against Jeremy Banks or the inability to cover Shi Smith.
“Our players found a way,’’ Pruitt said. “We knew we’d have our work cut out for us. We had limitations based on the number of practices.’’
UT was allotted 25 practices; they used 21, with several canceled due to virus concerns. Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney said the Vols had just 15 “functional’’ practices.
That’s why when someone asked Guarantano about getting an “ugly’’ win at South Carolina, UT’s fifth-year quarterback – or is it 15th year quarterback? – took exception.
“I wouldn’t say this is ugly,’’ said Guarantano, who was 19 of 31 for 259 yards and a touchdown. “In the SEC, when you go on the road, it’s a dog fight.’’
While UT lost two quality wide receivers and brought in four talented wideouts, it was a couple of veterans who helped make a big difference Saturday night.
Josh Palmer had six catches for 85 yards and a 32-yard touchdown catch in the fourth quarter to break a 24-24 tie.
“We’ve made that throw hundreds of millions of times in the summer,’’ Guarantano said.
Brandon Johnson had three catches for 73 yards.
“It was fun,’’ Palmer said. “I had butterflies in my stomach (before kickoff). I was really happy to be out there today.’’
South Carolina’s offense scored quickly with new offensive coordinator Mike Bobo and new quarterback Colin Hill generating a 75-yard touchdown drive on SC’s first possession.
Tennessee held South Carolina to 50 yards the rest of the first half.
Meanwhile, UT managed one scoring drive in the first half, a 90-yard march, sparked by a 30-yard throw to Johnson, a 31-yard dump-off to Eric Gray and a 1-yard sneak by Guarantano.
Tennessee led 14-7 at halftime, thanks to linebacker Henry To’o To’o’s 32-yard interception return.
In the second half, both offenses moved the ball efficiently as the Gamecocks had touchdown drives of 75 and 71 yards and field goal drives of 68 and 57 yards.
Tennessee marched 74 yards to take a 21-7 third quarter lead, then zipped 75 yards in four plays to take a 31-24 lead with 9:35 left in the game.
Guarantano said the offense was “groggy’’ in the first half.
“We went to a faster pace in the second half,’’ he said. “The hurry up worked well.’’
Maybe so, but the third down offense didn’t. The Vols were 1-of-11 on third-down conversions, in part due to Guarantano misfires.
“I feel like I was leaning back on some (over) throws,’’ Guarantano said. “There are some things I need to fix with my throws.’’
Pruitt acknowledged his quarterback missed a few targets but said he was “pretty good’’ with his decision making.
“Jarrett made some good plays. But he was high on a lot of throws. We got to figure out where we are offensively and be more consistent.’’
Considering UT had lost its last two openers under Pruitt, getting a road SEC win was satisfying.
“We were relentless,’’ said Palmer. “You need to have mental strength to play in the SEC. It’s better to have mental strength than physical strength.’’
Tennessee had just enough mental strength to start the season 1-0.
NOTEBOOK: Nickleback Shawn Shamburger was a late scratch due to injury. He was replaced by true freshman Doneiko Slaughter, who had trouble staying with Shi Smith (10 catches, 140 yards). Smith burned UT for 11 catches and 156 yards last year. … DL Darel Middleton, RB Dee Beckwith (ankle) and TE Austin Pope (back) did not play. … USC led in time of possession by 9:30 but UT won the turnover battle 2-0, which proved pivotal. … UT is now 2-5 in its last seven trips to Columbia, S.C. … Vols OL Cade Mays did not play as he has yet to be cleared by the SEC. Mays was given a waiver by the NCAA earlier this month. … UT outrushed SC 133-89 this year and 134-78 last year.