COLUMBIA — Jarrett Guarantano threw a tie-breaking touchdown to Josh Palmer with 9:35 left and No. 16 Tennessee won its seventh straight game with a 31-27 victory at South Carolina on Saturday.
The Volunteers appeared to have things in hand when they went ahead 21-7 on Eric Gray's 12-yard scoring run on their opening drive of the third quarter.
However, South Carolina rallied behind first-time starter quarterback Collin Hill with two touchdowns and a field goal over the next four series to tie the Southeastern Conference opener for both teams at 24-all in the fourth quarter.
That's when Guarantano, the fifth-year senior, struck with back-to-back big plays for the deciding score.
Guarantano was heavily pressured when he got the ball to an all-alone Brandon Johnson for 33 yards inside South Carolina territory. The next play, Guarantano threw a picture perfect pass to Palmer for a 32-yard touchdown.
Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt was pleased with Guarantano's play, although he did think he and the offense must become more consistent.
"We've got to go back and figure out where we are offensively and where we can create some consistency," he said. "But we put some drives together and finished the game off."
South Carolina looked like it had a final chance when it forced a Tennessee punt with 90 seconds left. However, the punt touched the Gamecocks' Cam Smith after it hit the ground, Tennessee's Jimmy Holiday recovered and the Vols ran out the clock for the win.
"No one play lost us the game," South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp said.
Guarantano finished 19 of 31 for 259 yards. He also rushed for Tennessee's first touchdown.
South Carolina, with a new offensive coordinator in ex-Colorado State coach Mike Bobo and new quarterback in grad transfer Hill, showed some spark as it took the opening drive 75 yards for a touchdown on Kevin Harris' 3-yard run.
The Gamecocks had the chance to pile on early when Tennessee couldn't get a punt off on its first series and South Carolina had it on the Vols' 38.
That's when Tennessee's D took control, holding the Gamecocks to 50 yards the rest of the half.
Linebacker Henry To'o To'o had a 38-yard interception return for a touchdown, catching the ball after it bounced off wide receiver Shi Smith's hands and tip-toeing down the sideline for the score.
Earlier, Brandon Johnson had a spectacular 30-yard grab — he stretched out his left arm and hauled in the pass at full speed — and Gray a 31-yard catch to the Gamecocks 1-yard line before Guarantano's scoring run.
Hill finished 25 of 39 passing for 290 yards and a touchdown. Smith had 10 catches for 140 yards for the Gamecocks.
Tennessee: Vols AD Phil Fulmer said Thursday the school extended Pruitt's contract through 2025, an indicator of how strongly it feels about its current leadership. While Tennessee has some work ahead, it kept its poise down the stretch to keep its win streak alive.
South Carolina: The Gamecocks' attack had scored only one offensive touchdown in its final three games last year. They tripled that total in this one as Hill looked confident in his first start since transferring from Colorado State.
Hard to see Tennessee falling in the rankings with a solid SEC road win to start the season.
MAKING A CHOICE
The Gamecocks, trailing 31-24, faced fourth down and 12 yards to go at the Tennessee 28 with less than four minutes left when Muschamp chose to send Parker White on for a 45-yard field goal for South Carolina's final points. The strategy of defense and timeouts appeared to work until the punt muff. Muschamp said he might not have kicked if "it had been less than fourth-and-12."
Tennessee opens its home season against Missouri next Saturday.
South Carolina goes on the road to face No. 5 Florida on Saturday.
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