It was snowing in Nashville this week, and Tennessee (2-5) is slated to play Florida (7-1) in Neyland Stadium on Saturday.
Nothing about that sentence makes sense, but then again, nothing about this year makes sense. Instead of playing the Gators to open up the SEC slate in the September heat like Vol fans are used to, Tennessee gets No. 6 Florida in early December after having played seven games.
These two programs are trending in complete opposite directions this season. The Gators are putting up video game numbers while averaging over 43 points per game on a five-game win streak, while Tennessee is floundering on a five-game losing skid. The Vols’ 30-17 loss to Auburn in Week 9 marked the first time in program history Tennessee lost five straight games by double digits.
Not exactly the kind of history Jeremy Pruitt is looking to make in his third season.
To be honest, nobody expects Tennessee to suddenly figure things out offensively and be able to contain Florida enough to pull off the upset on Saturday. The Gators are poised for an SEC Championship appearance and are pushing for a spot in the College Football Playoff. After having an extra week to prepare with the postponement of the Texas A&M game, the eyes of Tennessee fans will be on one thing on Saturday.
Who gets the start at quarterback?
3 things to watch:
Tennessee’s starting QB: Frankly, Tennessee’s first few snaps on offense might determine whether or not many fans check out of this game early. If Jarrett Guarantano trots out there with the first-team offense, listen closely enough and you will hear the collective sound of TVs being shut off across the state. The fifth-year senior has thrown six interceptions against four touchdowns this season, and half of those picks have been run back for a touchdown. This includes a backbreaking 100-yard pick six against Auburn two weeks ago that gave the Tigers a 10-point lead in the second half.
Jeremy Pruitt might still believe Guarantano gives Tennessee the best chance to win, but something simply has to change. Guarantano has proven who is he as a quarterback time and time again, and Pruitt and his staff have nothing to lose by trying something new. That something new is former blue-chip prospect Harrison Bailey. In his Wednesday press conference, Pruitt stated that Bailey “will definitely play on Saturday, to what extent we have not decided”.
The freshman has seen limited action in garbage time this season, but this offense is desperate for a spark. Whether or not Bailey provides that spark is unclear. What is abundantly clear, however, is that Guarantano hinders this offense more than he helps it. What is it they say about the definition of insanity?
Handling Kyle Pitts: Florida has two Heisman Trophy contenders named Kyle on the roster, and they have both devastated opposing defenses all season. Quarterback Kyle Trask has thrown a stunning 34 touchdowns this season, and 11 of them have gone to tight end Kyle Pitts. Pruitt labeled Pitts “the most talented guy I’ve ever played against” this week. Tennessee’s linebackers have struggled in coverage all season, and the Vols’ defense has been decimated by slants and other intermediate routes over the middle of the field. Pitts will expect to make a living on this on Saturday and is poised for a huge game.
Second half performance: Tennessee has been outscored 108-14 in the second half this season. Since the Week 2 win over Missouri, the Vols have looked completely lifeless out of the locker room at halftime. Regardless of the score after two quarters on Saturday, fans have to see some semblance of energy from this team in the second half.
At this point, it appears unlikely that Jeremy Pruitt is fired this season. But the woes of this campaign have reached a point to where it is inevitable to be concerned with the direction in which the program is headed. A sixth-straight loss where the Vols hit a wall in the second half will only magnify those concerns.
Tennessee wins if…
Harrison Bailey is the next coming of Peyton Manning.
In all seriousness, this might be the only way Tennessee wins on Saturday, because we have seen enough to know Guarantano is not going to wake up and score as many touchdowns as he has scored all season (four) in one game to outscore the Gators. It is also completely unfair to expect Bailey to come in and light up the stat sheet, but it is clear what Tennessee is doing on offense right now just is not working. This Florida defense has come under fire plenty of times this season, but had a nice performance last week, holding a struggling Kentucky offense to 10 points. The Gators have allowed 243 pass yards per game this season, which is good for top five in the SEC.
Look, this Florida offense is going to put up points. It is incredibly unlikely that a Tennessee defense that has allowed over 31 points per game is going to be the first to figure out one of the best scoring offenses in the country. In fact, Florida is coming off its lowest point total of the season last week, which was a 34-10 win over Kentucky.
Tennessee would have to find lightning in a bottle at quarterback to have a prayer in this game, but the eyes of the Tennessee faithful will be fixated on whether or not progress can be made at that position, regardless of the score. If we see more of the same from the last two months, expect the apathy for this season to continue to take root, and the cries for a coaching change to grow louder.
Tennessee Volunteers @ No. 6 Florida Gators (-17.5)
Location: Knoxville, Tennessee (Neyland Stadium)
TV Broadcast Crew: Carter Blackburn, Aaron Murray, Jenny Dell
Radio: Vol Network, 104-5 The Zone
Radio Broadcast Crew: Bob Kesling, Tim Priest, Kasey Funderburg, John Wilkerson, Brent Hubbs
Weather: 50% chance of rain, high of 46, low of 30