By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – November 30, 2019)
This doubles as the piece for the Vandy game, because honestly, there’s not much interesting to write here other than a bit of a coming out party for Eric Gray at the running back spot, at least for one week, featuring the second longest TD run in school history. Once Keshawn Vaughn was out, the outcome didn’t seem to be in much doubt, but truthfully it never did to begin with. There’s much more meat on the bone when we look at these 12 games in totality, with a bowl game to come that we’ll know more about in a little over a week.
So, here are the Big 6 Takeaways from Vols 2019, a 7-5 team that got there in the most improbable of ways.
0-2 AND 1-4
You might be quick to say, “Oh, what could have been,” but stop for a second and think of the journey, rather than a few numbers. Until you hit rock bottom and turn into a laughing stock, which after the loss to Georgia State and the heartbreaker against BYU, the Vols were nationally, sometimes your ability to change remains stubborn, rather than flexible. Had Tennessee done as many expected, opening up 3-0 before the trip to Gainesville back on September 21, who knows what would have happened.
While it’s certainly conceivable that every game would have gone the same way, it might also NOT have. Everything that happened after 1-4 wouldn’t have played out identically, because that’s not how things work. But, we look at 7-5 now and see a team that finished strong, found itself in the valley and not on the mountaintop, and decided to make the best of a bad situation. The victory over Mississippi State, because of the defensive performance against Kylin Hill, was where we saw the first true signs of life for the Vols. It would not be the last time, as we know.
FIRST HALF AGAINST GEORGIA
This was the real turning point, because even in a game that ended up 43-14, the Vols played the Dawgs insanely tough in the first 25 minutes of the game, showing talent, but also showing discipline that had eluded the fighting Pruitt’s for much of the front half of the season. Georgia is just flat out better than Tennessee, which showed and continues to as they’re headed for the SEC Championship game and another potential College Football Playoff appearance.
The final score, to which anyone who watched or played in the game could attest, was entirely non-indicative of the UT effort or of the first half. This was the bright spot and the moment where Tennessee remembered they could play, tasted some optimism, and started to show signs of life against a quality opponent. The Vols could build on the loss, tweak some things, and the squad was getting healthier.
Moral victory? No. But a step in the right direction, at least for much of a half. It was a start.
While this class will not go down as one of the best ever and most of the names don’t register outside of the conference or maybe even outside of the state, when I start naming some of these guys, this list is going to leave you smiling.
All five of these guys had huge years, including Warrior, who had been an immense disappointment since arriving in Knoxville, but realized much of his potential in the back half of 2019. He’s now a draftable player in the NFL, which didn’t look at all likely eight games ago. Jennings, do we really even need to go any further? He’s the epitome of what you want a player to be on the field, and after dealing with maturity issues a few years ago, was a no doubt leader and a “dog” among all dogs. Callaway, you just have to wonder what he’d have been with a legit passing attack that used his skills for four years. Tennessee didn’t, but he’ll be a solid pro with his measurables and his ability to snag 50/50 jump balls.
Daniel Bituli was such a leader that the defense looked like it was 50% without him on the field and nowhere close to what it would become once he got healthy. He’s on the short list of best defenders this century at Tennessee, and maybe the most important on that side of the ball since Derek Barnett. Taylor was a beast at times, especially in a monstrous outing against South Carolina, where he was absolutely everywhere on the football field and began receiving mail in the South Carolina backfield.
The Vols aren’t a five win team without these five, among others. These guys are going to exit Knoxville on a high note, dealing with turnover and futility and instability. Jennings and Bituli both will be remembered for a long time to come.
Oooooh boy, here we go. You want to talk about hypotheticals? What if I told you the best thing that ever happened to JG was arguably the worst choice of his football career, on fourth down in Tuscaloosa when he went full on Sarah Palin, went rogue, and gave the game away against Alabama. Am I crazy? You might think so, but again, it was here that we saw the toughness and integrity of Jarrett Guarantano, and also where we saw the value is his psychology and mental health degree, as he needed those techniques to keep his wits about him.
Multiple times this season, he could have quit on his team, and multiple times this season, it felt like the fanbase quit on him, but even after the disastrous sneak, whenever Pruitt or Jim Chaney called his number, he strapped on his helmet and played football. After Bama, he played it at the highest level of his career, even though the regular season finale against Vanderbilt wasn’t one of his best efforts.
JG was poised, he was confident, he was throwing into tight windows, and he was just making every play. It wasn’t there until he failed miserably in Tuscaloosa, and I’m not sure it ever would have been without that debacle. He discovered who he was and who he wasn’t, what he could do and what he couldn’t, and embraced the Jarrett Guarantano that plays for the University of Tennessee, rather than the person he might have hoped to be.
Beloved? No. Legendary? No. But his play has left him in a spot where he might actually return to the Vols in 2020, and shockingly, the fans might welcome that decision, unlike the one he made in T-Town.
The Vols finished the season by winning six of its last seven and third in the SEC East, the only blemish coming in a tremendous effort against Alabama on the road in primetime. Tennessee won conference games over Mississippi State, South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and they went on the road to beat Kentucky and Missouri. UAB wasn’t a challenge. Once it began trending well for the Vols, they answered the bell and held onto close leads late, usually courtesy of defensive stops in key moments.
What comes next, we’ll have to see, but you can’t talk about 1-4 without 6-1 immediately afterward. It doesn’t require much exposition. It’s impressive in the SEC, it’s impressive anywhere and by anybody in college football. What you have to do to be good or to succeed is take advantage of golden opportunities. The back half of the schedule was very beatable, and if you go back to my pieces in advance of the South Carolina game, recall me saying if they beat the Gamecocks, they’d go on a tear and I wouldn’t be surprised if they ran the table outside of Alabama.
I could have been wrong, but in this instance, I was exactly right. Kudos to the Vols on the resilience they showed.
A SHOT AT THE OCHO
7-5, another month or so of practice time, which coaches find invaluable, and a chance to win an eighth game. Considering the 1-4 start, Guarantano’s mistake and overall ineffectiveness at the start of the year, inconsistency in the trenches, an inability to run the football, and a national media laughing at Jeremy Pruitt…
That ain’t too bad.
Hope is all through Knoxville right now, Pruitt’s team is playing for him, he’s winning the fan base over, and right now, the Tennessee Volunteers are one of the hottest teams in the country, even though the wins have largely been close. That type of victory is not sustainable, but perhaps it’s just the first step in the process of rebuilding a national power. Losing to Vanderbilt would have killed the momentum, but even in a pretty flat football game, Tennessee would snap its three game losing streak to the Dores.
We’ve still got a long way to go to make Tennessee relevant nationally again, but this team could be 3-9 and it wouldn’t have surprised, considering how badly it began against Georgia State and BYU. They aren’t. They’re 7-5. This is a successful season, and one that could be remembered as the calm before the storm, should the Vols take it and run with it going forward. If nothing else, it’s been eventful.
ON TO THE BOWL GAME.