By JASON MARTIN (@JMartZone – November 2, 2019)
In a first half that finished 23-0, somehow the score was far less entertaining than it looked, and it doesn’t look that entertaining. It wasn’t exactly a barnburner as Tennessee celebrated homecoming with a victory over UAB, moving to 5-0 overall against the Blazers, who entered the contest 6-1 against a schedule that, to put it kindly, was lacking.
Still, it wasn’t particularly impressive offensively in the first half, but the defense was beastly as the pass rush got home and the INT totals kept on rising. In the second half, it became a hold serve and stay healthy gameplan. Here are my Big 6 Takeaways from Tennessee’s 30-7 victory over Alabama-Birmingham.
In a game like this, I’m wasting the first takeaway on ESPNU color analyst Kelly Stouffer, who simply could not pronounce Guarantano with a “G” for much of the first half, and it was an intermittent problem all night long.
This was not a strong performance in the booth, but I’m not going to pile on, past the idea that you HAVE to be able to get the quarterback’s name correct. Yes, there’s the “Mare-ee-oh-tuh” chorus out there, but this is worse, because a hard G or a soft G makes much more of a difference. Neither is good, but the former happened throughout Marcus’ college career and until he got to Nashville, I always thought it was pronounced in the way… it wasn’t.
This was bad though. Very bad.
Dominant. This is a unit that had just 9 interceptions all of last season that now has 13. Nigel Warrior entered Saturday’s game with 3, tied for the team lead, but that is no more, as Bryce Thompson had three… against UAB. Unreal. It’s the first Vols trifecta for a player since Deon Grant did it in a shutout win over Auburn in 1999. That’s tied for an all-time team record.
20 of Tennessee’s 23 first half points came as a result of FOUR takeaways on seven possessions, and as we saw, not much happened in the second half. Tyler Johnston entered with a high INT ratio and left with a much more egregious number, and sadly he also left the game due to injury. Based on last week’s defensive performance and the way Tennessee attacked Mississippi State’s ground game and attempted to get to the quarterback against Alabama, this was the effort we expected to see.
WHAT COULD HAVE BEEN
This Volunteers football team should have been 3-0 going to Gainesville to play Florida on September 21, but instead Tennessee was 1-2 and would fall to 1-4 before the Mississippi State victory. Realistically, Tennessee should be 6-3, assuming the results stayed the same in conference. But that’s not the case, and it’s a bit of a shame, because THIS team has talent and is playing with cohesion.
HOWEVER, the Vols don’t have a reliable starter at quarterback, and by reliable, I mean someone you trust to get you home and do so without costing your team a game in the process. Two freshmen and Jarrett Guarantano is more of a piecemeal system where nobody stands out, because each has strengths and weaknesses.
Here’s what might be true of the 2019 Vols. This may have simply had to happen, the 1-4 and the 2-5 and all the bad might have had to occur in order to wake this football team up. It’s not that they were cocky. It’s that they lacked discipline, and they were rudderless defensively as Daniel Bituli worked himself back into the fold. There is much room for improvement, but this is a far better football team today than it was in early September or even early October.
His three field goals in the first half were crucial when Guarantano and the offense couldn’t find the end zone. On the day, he connected from 36, from 48, and a career long of 53 that turned out to be the longest field goal for a Vol since Jeff Hall also hit from 53 in 1995.
For the season, Brent has been awfully good, succeeding on 15 of 17 FGs, including 6-7 from beyond 40 yards. That’s a great weapon to have in your team’s arsenal, especially when they’ve shown a propensity to be a little lacking in the point production department at times. He’s done his job. He’s also made more this season than he ATTEMPTED in 2018, and his percentage has jumped to over 88, which especially for a college kicker getting plenty of opportunities, is worthy of mention in this week’s column.
You can’t ask for too much more than what he’s giving you this season.
NOT SHARP OFFENSIVELY, BUT DIDN’T SLEEPWALK EITHER
It’s a positive to say that it was a very pedestrian game offensively for Tennessee, but in no way did it feel as if they were just going through the motions. They were playing hard and they were matching up against a pretty good UAB defense that, albeit against inferior competition, was surrendering under 250 total yards per game. The Vols crossed 300, just barely, and it was enough. The second half was less uninspired and more just getting to the finish line quickly.
For a second straight week, Ty Chandler’s number was called more often, and that’s to this team’s benefit, as he is the gamebreaker Jordan and Gray aren’t at this point in the season. Chandler needs to feel good about himself heading into this final stretch, and with 16 carries for 85 yards and a score, it was just enough and not too much. Similarly, Jauan Jennings made a couple of plays and he will be IMMENSELY important next week, as will Chandler and Callaway in particular. But 15 and 8 both… those two may have space to operate from the backfield on handoffs or end arounds.
NOW IT’S BOWL OR BUST
Seriously, despite that atrocity of a start to the season, with what lies ahead for Jeremy Pruitt’s football team, missing out on a bowl should be viewed as a disappointment. The trip to Lexington next week won’t be easy, but there’s also no excuse as to why Tennessee can’t go up there and beat a Wildcats team that’s not as good as last year’s team they thumped in Knoxville.
Certainly the quarterback has to be efficient, but at this stage, the Tennessee defense is presenting a chance to be exactly where you want to be respective to +/- in takeaways, and should the Vols beat UK, what’s left is Missouri and Vanderbilt, where just ONE of those gets them to six wins and makes them bowl eligible.
Interestingly, these two teams have some frightening statistical similarities, with Tennessee averaging 354.6 yards per game and Kentucky 355.4… that’s a 0.8 yard difference. Defensively, Tennessee gives up 365.3 and Kentucky gives up 355.4, a ten yard difference. The Cats like to run it a little more often, but they struggle against the run more than the Vols have.
It will be an interesting and likely a close matchup next Saturday night in the Bluegrass State.
Good enough. 30-7 is perfectly fine in a -13 game, and Tennessee still looks fine headed into these last three SEC games, where two wins put them in the postseason for the first time in three seasons. There are plenty of worried expressions on Vol fans’ faces when you mention the word “quarterback,” but the OL, the defense, the special teams unit, and the receivers all elicit smiles from those same enthusiasts. And with Chandler beginning to show a little more and Chaney taking more advantage of Ty’s skill set, the chances to run the table aren’t outlandish, but again, missing out on “6” in the W column would now feel like a huge let down.