By now, it’s no secret that Butch Jones is 0-3 against South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp since becoming Tennessee’s head coach in 2013.
Muschamp edged Jones 31-17 in 2013 and 10-9 in 2014 while at Florida, and completely derailed Tennessee’s 2016 campaign with a 24-21 win as the Gamecocks’ head coach last season.
Given the disparity between the two program’s histories, Tennessee shouldn’t view South Carolina as a pivotal game, but alas, here we are. Jones has managed to ascend the Vols back into national relevancy, only to threaten to send them plummeting toward the same level of irrelevancy the program experienced during the Derek Dooley days.
But with a win over Muschamp at noon on Saturday, Jones can start tilting the narrative in his favor.
This isn’t a duel between two coaching masterminds. Objectively, both Jones and Muschamp are mediocre at their jobs. Sprinkled in here and there are a few impressive performances, but for the most part, neither one is operating at a championship-level. But for Jones, beating South Carolina (after allegedly the greatest bye week in the history of bye weeks) will prove he’s somewhat learned from his past transgressions.
What stands out the most is the quarterback change — redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano is making his debut after junior Quinten Dormady struggled mightily. The reasons for Dormady’s struggles are extensive, as blame can be placed on both Dormady himself and the coaching staff for leaving him ill-prepared. The same outcome can take shape for Guarantano against the Gamecocks — he can be placed in poor situations and prove to be “not ready.”
However, if Tennessee finds success against South Carolina at the quarterback position, there is one appropriate reaction — Jones made the right decision, but why the hell did it take so long to make?
Regardless of how much time has elapsed, Guarantano’s performance on Saturday will say a lot about Jones as a coach, both positively and negatively. The negatives in this situation, as mentioned before, is that it took way too long for Jones to come to this quarterback revelation, but if Guarantano plays well, that means the offensive play-calling will actually be competent, a rarity nowadays in Knoxville.
Diving deeper into the situation, Jones also needs to prove he can put together a four-quarter performance against a team he should dominate.
The Gamecocks are an improved team from last season’s 6-7 campaign, but under no circumstances do they have the personnel to match up with Tennessee. The Vols have an exciting dual-threat quarterback, talented wide receivers, an experienced offensive line, and arguably the SEC’s best running back in John Kelly on offense.
Defensively, there are holes at every position, but the Gamecocks rank 78th overall in offensive efficiency, according to ESPN. This isn’t a team that’ll put up 40 points, unless their defensive decides to assist in the scoring department.
Needless to say, this game shouldn’t be a tug-of-war-type conflict, although given Jones’ history, that’s likely to transpire.
It’s odd that a coach of Will Muschamp’s caliber is an arch nemesis to Tennessee, but that’s the reality of the situation. For Jones and the program, a win over him will be a huge step in the right direction.