Tennessee escaped South Carolina with a road SEC win after a three-week delay to the start of conference play.
Coach Jeremy Pruitt will take it.
It was certainly better than losing as a 26-point favorite at home to Georgia State or getting blown out by West Virginia.
Don’t say it was an ugly win, or you’ll hear from Jarrett Guarantano.
It was resourceful.
Not pretty. Not proficient. Not prodigious.
Here are three Green Flags (ready to go) and three Red Flags (stop doing that) as the Vols prepare for their home opener at noon Saturday against Missouri, an 11-point underdog.
Three Green Flags:
- The pass rush was much better than anticipated, especially without Darrell Taylor’s 8 ½ sacks from last season. Deandre Johnson had 2 ½ sacks, Kivon Bennett added a ½. UT totaled four sacks, four quarterback hurries and nine tackles for loss. You’d take those totals against Missouri.
- Veteran receivers stepped up. Pruitt said he signed the best collection of freshmen receivers in the country. But none made a catch against South Carolina. Veteran Josh Palmer had six catches for 85 yards, Brandon Johnson averaged over 24.3 yards on three catches (including a spectacular one-handed grab on UT’s second series) and senior USC transfer Velus Jones Jr. had five grabs. They accounted for 13 of Guarantano’s 19 completions.
- Tennessee had five completions of at least 20 yards, four of at least 30. Those are the type splash plays typically needed in the SEC. The eventually game-winner was a 32-yard strike to Palmer. Eric Gray went 31 yards on a dump-off to set up a 1-yard quarterback sneak. Johnson had the 30-yard one-handed catch and a 33-yarder. Palmer had a 20-yard reception. Stretching the field vertically not only helps the underneath pass game but the run game.
Three Red Flags:
- South Carolina’s best offensive player, by far, is receiver Shi Smith, Last year, he caught 11 passes for 156 yards against Tennessee. The No. 1 emphasis in your defensive game plan is to stop Smith. Yet, Tennessee put true freshman Doneiko Slaughter at star and matched him against Smith. It was a mismatch. Smith had 10 catches for 140 yards. Due to missed practices, Jaylen McCullough didn’t start, so UT moved its best corner, Bryce Thompson, to safety because he understands the concepts. If he understands the concepts, then put him at star and line him up against Smith. Start somebody else, anybody else, at safety. But don’t let Carolina’s best player have his way against a true freshman. That wasn’t Slaughter’s fault. That was the coaches’ fault.
- Converting 1-of-11 on third down usually gets you beat, especially in a close game. The lone conversion came on Johnson’s one-handed grab. Guarantano was 1-of-7 passing on third down, with most of those throws sailing high. Two failures came late in the game, so you can discard not making it on 3rd-and-27 and when you take a knee on the final play. But the others were troublesome. Three times, UT had third-and-3 or less and didn’t convert. Five other times, it was third-and-6 or more. UT needs to do a better job avoiding third-and-long and Guarantano needs to do a better job hitting his targets.
- Behind what is supposed to be one of the top offensive lines in the SEC, UT rushed for only 10 yards in the first half. To be fair, Guarantano lost 12 on sacks. Still, the running backs had just 22 yards on eight carries. On the first drive of the third quarter, UT went 74 yards for a score, 64 coming on the ground. Clearly, UT put a greater emphasis on the run game in the second half. But this line wasn’t dominant or even, at times, decent. The Vols will face several SEC defensive fronts better than South Carolina’s. To be fair, the unit was hit hard by Covid-19, causing many players to miss practice. But against the cream of the SEC crop, the line must play at a higher level.
Honorable mention: Tennessee had two possessions in Carolina territory, one that started at midfield and one at UT’s 47 – and didn’t score. Tennessee had trouble taking advantage of prime field position last year. That has carried over. Whether it’s play calling or quarterback play or simply execution, that needs to be fixed.