Updated with more information at 12:15 a.m. on Sept. 27, 2020
COLUMBIA, S.C. — The Tennessee Volunteers are experiencing a brand new world under third-year football coach Jeremy Pruitt.
It's called being 1-0.
After losing opening games the past two seasons to West Virginia and Georgia State, Tennessee spotted South Carolina a quick score Saturday night inside Williams-Brice Stadium before regrouping, building a two-touchdown bulge and then holding on for a 31-27 victory. For the No. 16 Vols, it was the first of 10 league games in this Southeastern Conference season that was delayed and altered by the coronavirus.
"It feels good," Vols sophomore linebacker Henry To'o To'o said of the undefeated mark. "You win and you always feel good. It's a confidence booster, but we have a lot of stuff we can clean up. We know what we to fix, and we know what we excel at, so we've just got to move on from here."
A crowd of just 15,009 attended Saturday's game, with Williams-Brice having been configured to house as many as 15,637 due to implemented COVID-19-related guidelines.
Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano followed a 33-yard pass to Brandon Johnson with a 32-yard scoring strike to Josh Palmer with 9:35 remaining to give the Vols a 31-24 advantage. Guarantano finished 19-of-31 passing for 259 yards and the score, while fellow senior Ty Chandler led the ground game with 13 carries for 86 yards.
"I felt like I was leaning back on some throws, so there is a lot of work to get done with myself," Guarantano said. "I thoughy I could be a lot better, and there is only up from here. I was high on some throws thinking I was going to get hit, and that's not how I play ball.
"There is a lot of room to grow, but I'm happy we got this win, and I'm excited about the future."
South Carolina pulled within 31-27 with 3:16 left on a Parker White 45-yard field goal, but the Vols moved the ball near midfield and forced the Gamecocks to burn their timeouts. A Tennessee punt with 1:24 remaining hit off a Gamecocks player and was recovered by the Vols to clinch it.
"We played about like I thought we would play," Pruitt said. "Being in this business a while, you know when a team is ready to play, and because of the circumstances we faced in fall camp, I knew we weren't ready to play a game at a high level, but we actually played better in spurts than I thought we would."
Saturday marked the debut of new South Carolina offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, the former Georgia quarterback and Colorado State head coach who was hired last December to inject life in a program that scored just one touchdown in its final three games last season.
Tennessee took its first lead at the 13:22 mark of the second quarter, when Gamecocks quarterback Collin Hill threw behind favorite target Shi Smith, and To'o To'o collected the deflected ball and raced 32 yards for the touchdown and a 14-7 advantage. It was the first interception of To'o To'o's career with the Vols.
"We were just playing zone, so we dropped zone, because it was third-and-long," To'o To'o said. "I broke on the ball, and it was tipped, and the rest was my running back days."
Former Tennessee quarterback Josh Dobbs approved of To'o To'o's momentum-shifting play, posting on Twitter, "To'o To'o is a beast. All beasts wear #11."
The Vols took that 14-7 lead into halftime, but Pruitt wasn't happy, saying, "We've got to be more aggressive. We've got to have better quarterback play. We've got to be able throw and catch the ball and sustain blocks."
Tennessee opened the second half with an eight-play, 74-yard drive that Eric Gray capped with a 12-yard touchdown run that gave the Vols their largest lead of the night at 21-7. Seven of the eight plays on that possession were runs, with Chandler rushing five times for 33 yards and Guarantano making a 19-yard scramble.
The Gamecocks responded with success through the air to pull even at 21, but a 27-yard Brent Cimaglia field goal at the 2:18 mark of the third quarter put Tennessee up 24-21.
South Carolina opened the game with a crisp 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive that was capped by a Kevin Harris 3-yard run. Hill, a graduate transfer who followed Bobo from Colorado State, had three connections with Smith on the inaugural drive for 46 yards.
Tennessee's first possession ended with a sack of Guarantano, which was followed by punter Paxton Brooks fielding a low snap and deciding to fake an attempt when there was still room to kick it away.
The Vols started their second drive on their own 10-yard line but covered 90 yards in seven plays, pulling even on a 1-yard Guarantano run. Johnson had a diving, one-handed 30-yard reception on Tennessee's first scoring drive of the season, and running back Eric Gray took a short Guarantano pass into open field and raced 31 yards to the 1.
"We made a lot of mistakes early on," Pruitt said. "We had a botched snap and had the ball driven right through us on the opening drive, but there was also a lot of good. We were just very inconsistent."