That is how long it has been since Tennessee last won a football game. It has been over two months, but somehow it still feels like much more time has passed since Tennessee beat Missouri 35-12 in Neyland Stadium on October 3. The latest of a six-game losing streak came on Saturday in a 31-19 defeat to Florida in which the Vols were more competitive than many expected. Harrison Bailey and JT Shrout are now running the show at quarterback, and it is fair to say this team actually showed some life in the second half against the Gators, scoring two touchdowns in garbage time.
The best way to break a six-game losing streak? Play an 0-8 team that is playing with 45 scholarship players and an interim head coach. Luckily for the Vols, that is exactly what they have next on the slate with a trip to Vanderbilt.
3 things to watch:
Bailey vs Shrout: Once again, we begin with the most obvious storyline. At this point, hope for the future is one of the few reasons Tennessee fans are still tuned in to this season. Bailey and Shrout provide that, although Shrout is already in his third year with the program as a redshirt sophomore.
Bailey got the start against Florida and played most of the game, completing 14 of 21 passes for 111 yards, a touchdown, and no interceptions. Shrout entered in the fourth quarter with the game already out of hand and completed 12 of 14 passes for 121 yards and a touchdown, albeit against a Florida defense that was playing soft coverage to see the game out. Both players showed poise and did not make any major mistakes, and it will be between those two again against Vanderbilt. But who gets the start?
As we have well learned by now with Jeremy Pruitt, it comes down to performance in practice. Regardless of who gets the start, it will be interesting to see how Tennessee’s coaching staff handles this. Bailey being pulled for Shrout late against Florida left some scratching their heads, but Shrout did put together a nice performance. Will the Vols pick one player and stick with him, ride with the hot hand, or frustrate fans by alternating between both players without finding any real rhythm?
Weather: Remember Tennessee’s game against Vandy in 2019? On a gloomy, stormy day in Knoxville in which the game was delayed due to lightning, the Vols attempted 17 passes and Eric Gray carried the ball 25 times for 246 yards and three touchdowns as Tennessee won 28-10.
As of the middle of the week, the forecast in Nashville is showing a high of 63 with a low of 37 and a 50% chance of rain. It doesn’t look like anything severe, and Tennessee fans should hope it stays that way. The most important thing about Saturday is not getting a win over the 0-8 Commodores that can barely field a team. It is about expanding the sample size Tennessee currently has on its quarterbacks and other young players.
A 24-7 win where the Vols run the ball 40 times because of the conditions will not make anyone feel any better about the direction of Jeremy Pruitt’s program. A win in which Harrison Bailey creates some explosive plays and shows progress will.
Young players: Just like we need to see progress from Tennessee’s young quarterbacks, progress from other young skill players is just as crucial. Tennessee’s defense has made a few strides in this area, with freshman Tyler Baron picking up a sack against Florida and players like Tamarion McDonald getting some snaps.
Jeremy Pruitt needs to show proof that there is light at the end of the tunnel in his tenure, especially on offense. Significant contributions from freshman wideouts Malachi Wideman and Jalin Hyatt would help in that effort.
Tennessee wins if….
Look, Vanderbilt is in such a bad state right now that the worst of performances from the Vols might still result in a win. The Commodores have dealt with an astonishing number of opt-outs and positive COVID tests and are playing for a lame duck coaching staff. As bad as Tennessee has been this season, the Vols have far more talent and depth.
A loss signifies disaster and would lead to significant pressure for Phillip Fulmer to make a coaching change. A grind-it-out win where the Vols are dominant up front and don’t allow their quarterbacks to make a large impact would end the losing streak but would not exactly part the storm clouds hanging over Knoxville right now.
Tennessee looked improved against No. 6 Florida on Saturday. That needs to carry over to the Vanderbilt game. If the Vols are dominant up front on both sides of the ball, show some stability and progress at the quarterback position on their way to a win, the conversations around the Tennessee fanbase may be a bit more positive next week.
Tennessee Volunteers (-15) at Vanderbilt Commodores
Kickoff: 3:00 pm
Location: Nashville, Tennessee (Vanderbilt Stadium)
TV: SEC Network
Radio: Vol Network, 104-5 The Zone
Radio Broadcast Crew: Bob Kesling, Bert Bertelkamp, Kasey Funderberg, John Wilkerson, Brent Hubbs
Weather: High of 63, low of 37, 50% chance of rain