For the first time in nearly 9 months, the Fearless Prediction is back …

Anything been happening lately?

COVID-19 has done all it can to keep college football games from being played, but the SEC is giving it a go starting Saturday. Here’s hoping that there are no more stoppages and that all the games are played.

The Vols start with a trip to South Carolina, a place that they’ve only won once since 2006. The 2016 loss in particular was the beginning of the end for Butch Jones, a loss which contributed to yet another failure to win a division title. This time, the Vols won’t have to contend with 80,000+ fans, as capacity is limited to 20,000.

Tennessee enters the season with tons of momentum after closing 2019 with 6 consecutive victories. They also have one of the most experienced and talented offensive lines in the conference, even if the SEC doesn’t allow Cade Mays to play.

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Sports betting in Tennessee officially launched on November 1, 2020, and many of the largest sportsbooks are live and operating in the volunteer state. Tennessee is only one of a handful of SEC football states with legalized sports betting.

There is experience at quarterback for Tennessee as well. Jarrett Guarantano, a 5th-year senior, will start against the Gamecocks. Guarantano’s resurgence late in 2019 matched his team’s. He will be without Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway but hopes that veterans Josh Palmer and Brandon Johnson pick up the slack. There is also a group of young and talented receivers who will get opportunities. Last year Tennessee’s quarterbacks torched the Gamecocks for 351 passing yards and 3 touchdowns. They hope the South Carolina secondary is just as accommodating, though that’s hard to imagine given the talent the Gamecocks return.

On defense the Vols lost some massively important pieces, including linebacker Daniel Bituli and defensive end/outside linebacker Darrell Taylor. Sophomore Henry To’o To’o quickly became a leader and should improve on his 72 tackles from 2019.

The big news for South Carolina is that Colorado State grad transfer Collin Hill beat out incumbent Ryan Hilinski for the starting quarterback spot. Hilinski threw 11 touchdown passes as a freshman last year. Hill played under former CSU head coach Mike Bobo, now the Gamecocks’ offensive coordinator. Hill will look to connect with senior wide receiver Shi Smith, who caught 43 passes in 2019.

South Carolina lost its top 3 running backs from a year ago, and its stud recruit, MarShawn Lloyd. They likely will showcase a combination of Deshaun Fenwick, Kevin Harris and ZaQuandre White on Saturday night. Harris is their top returning rusher, but only gained 179 yards.

On defense, the Gamecocks are happy to see Ernest Jones healthy and participating in practice. The junior linebacker had his appendix removed in July. Any contribution Jones could potentially make against the Vols would be welcomed. Jones led the Gamecocks with 97 tackles last season.

Finally (and thankfully), Tennessee got the Will Muschamp curse off its backs last season with a 41-21 throttling of the Gamecocks. Despite often having more talent, the Vols had previously lost all 7 games against him as a head coach (4 at Florida, 3 at South Carolina).

Maybe the Vols will be able to start a winning streak of their own over Muschamp.

Opening games are always tricky. Even under normal circumstances, you don’t know what to expect. Multiply that by 100 this season. But I owe it to you, loyal SDS reader, to give you my best effort in picking this game.

Fearless Prediction time …

Tennessee 24, South Carolina 21.