By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – November 24, 2018)
Well, it’s over. By “it,” I mean Tennessee’s 2018 college football season. At 5-5, Jeremy Pruitt and his team had two opportunities at bowl eligibility and lost both in convincing fashion. Outside of the Florida performance, no two efforts were less impressive than last week at home against Missouri and the regular season finale against Vanderbilt on the “road.”
15 extra practices went up in flames along with the chances at a sixth win, and this young squad will have to wait for the spring to get back to work. It ended painfully, because Tennessee barely showed any signs of life, and when the Vols did burst one big play into a touchdown, they followed it up with absolutely nothing.
5-7. And when they’ve lost this season, outside of one aberration, BOY have they ever lost. The margins of defeat in the seven losses: 26, 26, 26, 37, 33, 25, and the one three point loss against South Carolina. Yeesh.
Now what? Here are my Big 6 Takeaways from Saturday’s pretty embarrassing 38-13 loss at Commonwealth Stadium, a complete butt whoopin’ by the Dores.
KYLE SHURMUR HOLDS PROPERTY RIGHTS TO THE UNIVERSITY OF TENNESSEE
Vanderbilt’s impressive senior quarterback finishes his college career 3-1 against his in-state rival, with just two interceptions to go along with 12 touchdown passes in that quartet of games. He’s a great player, but he has always saved his best for the Vols, who this time around made him look like Drew Brees. In the first half, Shurmur completed his first 14 passes before his LONE INCOMPLETION of the opening pair of quarters. He would finish the game 31-35 for 367 yards and 3 TDs.
Folks, that is utterly ridiculous. His last three efforts against UT have gone for 416, 348, and now 367 yards. The Vols secondary, which felt like a bright spot two weeks ago, has been positively shredded over the last two games, as both Drew Lock and Shurmur have obliterated them through the air. The two QB performances, the accuracy and the playmaking ability to balance the running attack are two of the MANY reasons the Vols have no more football to play in 2018.
SPEAKING OF QBS
I have no idea whether or not Jarrett Guarantano is a “good” quarterback, because with the OL woes, what feels like sub-par rookie play calling from Tyson Helton, and health issues, he hasn’t had the best of opportunities to shine. That said, murmurs of protection problems and his inability to recognize vulnerabilities in front of him before the snap emerged at midseason. We saw him make some pretty throws at times, and there’s no doubt he’s hurting after the plethora of big hits he’s sustained, but he feels quite average right now.
Against Vanderbilt, just as against Missouri, he wasn’t good, this time 13-29 for 139 yards, a TD to Marquez Callaway in the fourth quarter with the game basically decided, and an interception. He’s been pedestrian or suboptimal throughout this stretch, and questions will be there as to whether he’s “the guy” next year.
TYSON HELTON IS DEFINITELY A ROOK
It wasn’t a hire that resulted in much of a reaction from Vols fans, and after this season, questions will be asked. When a team has a weapon like Ty Chandler and a total inability to run behind its guards, the expectation has to be to adjust to either a toss or screen game, finding ways to get your speedster, or for that matter any of your running backs, in places where they can operate.
Instead, it’s been more of the same. We haven’t seen adjustments and haven’t seen any semblance of aggression, creativity, or awareness in the offense since the Kentucky win in Knoxville two weeks back, which feels now like an eternity ago. Helton’s final analysis is going to put him in the C- territory at best, but more likely a D+. He failed to take advantage of places he had pluses, and instead accentuated the minuses and the shortcomings of his offense. The past two weeks, the game plan has been unacceptably bad, and the execution has made it even worse.
CHANDLER RUN THE SINGULAR BRIGHT SPOT OF THE DAY
Outside of Ty Chandler’s 75-yard third quarter touchdown, the Vols managed a measly 167 yards on its other 46 plays. Yes, that’s disgustingly bad. Also, outside of the one ten play and one nine play drive, it was largely a Three and Out show. Meanwhile, Vanderbilt ran 80 offensive plays and especially in the first half, summarily destroyed and dismantled Tennessee’s defense both with Shurmur and the passing game as well as on the ground.
Chandler is wasted potential and wasted talent at present in Knoxville. Next year, people will talk about how it’s going to be HIS YEAR, but that’s going to be up to the recruiting. If the OL stinks again, I have no faith in Tyson Helton’s ability not to find ways to handcuff his most explosive weapon and snatch yardage away from him.
For the season, Chandler should have been used more often, but even when he was, the numbers didn’t accompany him due largely to the offensive at large. The 75-yard score was solid, but his other six carries went for 13 yards. Tennessee cannot run the ball, and never found a way to at least use short passing as its own brand of rush attack.
PRUITT (QUESTION MARK, QUESTION MARK, QUESTION MARK)
Two weeks ago, Laura Rutledge tweeted out Pruitt’s name for SEC Coach of the Year following the Kentucky victory. At the time, she wasn’t alone, as even I had to step back and say a 5-5 mark considering what he had to work with was mightily impressive, especially with a road win at Auburn and a second top-15 upset win.
But today, Jeremy Pruitt is just another question mark in a program full of them. From Guarantano to the OL to the secondary to the lack of size in the trenches on both sides to Tyson Helton and finally to Pruitt, what did we just watch? We watched a 5-7 team limp and fail to reach the finish line, leaving “maybe next year” as the most hopeful thing the fan base can say.
Pruitt showed moments of grandeur and he showed aggression his predecessor lacked, but he also displayed a lack of logic and a propensity to be outcoached by guys you’d expect him to be better than. He was outclassed in Nashville by Derek Mason, a guy who might have been coaching for his job against Tennessee, but who ran circles around Pruitt on this Saturday.
It’s all going to come down to Jeremy Pruitt’s ability to recruit. He’s not someone that just targets all the four and five star kids, instead he believes in watching plenty of film, finding the young men that are a fit for the program, and even sitting prospective players down and showing them tape of their worst plays, rather than blowing smoke. So it might not be “Top 10” recruiting class, unless those the services believe are the best indeed are for Tennessee. Pruitt is going to do it his way, which means if it doesn’t work, there won’t be any safety valve.
It’s too early to tell if Pruitt is the answer. He walked into a cupboard more barren than some knew, he was undermanned, but its his staff that bothers you. He has such a lack of experience on the sidelines or the booth with the assistants and the coordinators and position coaches. This is a very young group. So, there would be ups and downs.
THE LAST WORD
Wait, where’s the sixth takeaway? If that’s what you’re asking, there are only five takeaways today, because the Vols couldn’t get to six. Five wins, the end of the season, a smorgasbord of questions and concerns, and an Incomplete on the report card. The fans aren’t apathetic in Knoxville and they’ll be hopeful for next season, but the last two weeks have to hurt anyone wearing the orange. Two chances at a bowl dashed by Missouri and Vanderbilt, the latter of which has now beaten Tennessee five of the last seven times they’ve played.
It’s a wait-and-see for Tennessee Volunteers football. 12 games into his coaching career, Jeremy Pruitt is 5-7, and I’m not certain, nor is anybody else, what his ceiling is and how much he still has to learn. He loves the game, eats, sleeps, and breathes the game, so he’ll put in the work. But, sports is a results-based business. Eventually, he’s going to have to start winning against South Carolina, against Missouri, certainly against Vanderbilt, and not watching his team underwhelm against lesser competition and sleepwalk to victories.
There is a LOT left to be determined about Tennessee football, but due to the Volunteers’ effort, or lack thereof, against Vanderbilt, nothing more will be learned for the next several months.