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AP photo by Sean Rayford / South Carolina running back Kevin Harris heads to the end zone for a touchdown by slipping past Tennessee linebacker Deandre Johnson during the first half of Saturday night's game in Columbia, S.C.

As only third-year University of Tennessee football coach Jeremy Pruitt can, the boss of the Volunteers said of Saturday night's first half at South Carolina, a game in which the visitors fell behind 7-0 early, then botched their first punt: "Well, we didn't start the game the way we wanted to."

Not exactly. In fact, the Big Orange Nation could have been forgiven for having flashbacks to last year's season-opening home loss to Georgia State in those first five minutes, especially after a bad snap on UT's first punt attempt — the Vols already down 7-0 — gave South Carolina the ball less than 40 yards from the end zone and a potential 14-0 lead.

But then Pruitt's specialty, defense, rose up and forced a punt. Soon the Vols tied it up, then went on top for good on linebacker Henry To'o To'o's pick-6. And with that, any thought that this opener would be like Pruitt's first two openers, both defeats, was seemingly dismissed.

Seemingly.

Because just as these Vols were looking like anything but those earlier Pruitt-coached Vols — roaring in front by 21-7 early in the third quarter — South Carolina somehow tied it at 21 with five minutes left in the period.

Then the home team tied it up again at 24 with a little more than 10 minutes to play.

This is where teams with realistic championship dreams snap to attention. South Carolina was displaying grit and pluck and heart throughout this game, much to the credit of embattled coach Will Muschamp, who may be on the hottest coaching seat in the Southeastern Conference.

But the Gamecocks are far from a threat to win the SEC East. So if Tennessee is to prove itself a legitimate division contender, this was a game the Vols couldn't lose.

And just like that, not much more than a minute after South Carolina tied it, UT senior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano untied it with a beautiful touchdown toss to Josh Palmer. Pruitt's defense again stiffened, forcing yet another Gamecocks punt.

Quickly dismissed, UT ultimately prevailed 31-27.

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AP photo by Sean Rayford / South Carolina linebacker Brad Johnson (19) and defensive lineman Kingsley Enagbare celebrate a stop against Tennessee during the season and SEC opener for both teams Saturday night in Columbia, S.C.

This is not to say Volniacs the South over should stock up on masks and hand sanitizer and start plotting a game plan to socially distance themselves into Atlanta's Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Dec 19 for the SEC championship game.

Fellow SEC East members Georgia and Florida looked like serious division, if not overall league contenders in (ultimately) easy conference road wins over Arkansas and Ole Miss, repectively.

Beyond that is the endless discussion of whether Guarantano is anything more than the best option of a flawed quarterback pool. To be fair, there were more than a few moments at South Carolina when the senior looked fully capable of guiding the Vols to Atlanta.

Then there were those other moments. No brain cramps to match the infamous audible at Alabama last season, but plenty of head-scratching throws tossed too wide or high for anyone shorter than seven feet to catch.

Though he didn't commit a turnover, he still too closely resembles the same ol' uneven, unpredictable Guarantano he's always been, which means he's now been a mighty big contributor to seven straight Big Orange victories, which just happens to be the nation's longest winning streak, but is also a certain contributor to Big Orange Nation headaches, stomachaches and words that can't be written in a family newspaper.

As SEC Network analyst Matt Stinchcomb said late in the final quarter: "You wonder if the strategy isn't to just get (UT) to third down. They've been horrible on third down. They're just 1-of-9 on third-down conversions."

That's not all on Guarantano. The offensive line, at times so powerful, also often looked far less than the sum of its considerably large parts. But at least on Saturday's evidence, it would seem the Vols need steadier quarterback play going forward if they are to be a threat to do more than reach a minor bowl, assuming we're going to have bowls.

Regardless, the Vols are 1-0 for the first time under Pruitt. They recovered a fumble by South Carolina on the Vols' final punt to ice that win. And in this strangest and least certain of college football seasons, Tennessee also proved why it's especially nice to have 16 returning starters during a coronavirus pandemic.

"I think it will come down to the kicking game," Pruitt told the SEC Network before the game.

Afterward, he said: "We didn't play consistently the whole game. We played in spurts. But I'm proud of our team."

One suspects a lot of the Big Orange Nation would agree with him.

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Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.

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