Tennessee came into the opening weekend of 2019 with optimism heading into Jeremy Pruitt‘s second year as the Vols head coach. Now, after an embarrassing defeat by Sun Belt Conference foe Georgia State, the Vols have more questions than answers. The loss to the Panthers, who won two games just a year ago, marks only the sixth win for a Sun Belt team over the SEC. For Tennessee fans, it’s another episode in the heartbreaking saga of the last decade of misery. In fact, fans have already provided some failing game grades and reviews for Georgia State of their own.
It is Tennessee’s first loss in a home opener since 1983 (a respectable loss to Top 10 Pittsburgh). A late touchdown made the game seem better than reality. In actuality, the Panthers outplayed the Vols for much of the game. When you are upset as -25 point home favorites, the grades will not be kind. Still, let’s hand out some Volunteer game grades for Georgia State.
Volunteer Game Grades Georgia State
Tennessee’s offense looked lethargic and vanilla from the opening drive of the game. For the second consecutive year, Vol fans were treated to a catastrophic start to the Tennessee football season. This year, the Vols opened their 2019 campaign with a turnover, and there wasn’t much improvement from there. As stated, a late touchdown with two seconds left in the game made the numbers seem better than the truth. Before that play, the Volunteers had not seen the endzone since the end of the first quarter. That is unacceptable against a group of five opponent when returning as many starters as Tennessee has on the offense. There was excitement surrounding a deep receiving unit and an experienced quarterback for the passing game. That quickly dissipated along with the crowd on a hot day in East Tennessee.
Offensive Stat of the Game: three turnovers and 93 total yards rushing.
Jarrett Guarantano was a dark horse media darling this season. The experienced junior starter was touted as a breakout candidate with a revamped offensive line to work behind and a deep receiving corps. He did show some good decision making and leadership early in the game. Guarantano’s stat line included 26 completions for 311 yards and two touchdowns.
However, as the contest continued on and the pressure turned up on the men in orange, he made some uncharacteristic mistakes. As the Volunteers and Panthers traded leads late in the fourth, he threw an interception into double coverage that crippled the Vols comeback attempt. He also would have had another red-zone interception were it not for a pass interference penalty at the end of the half. Ultimately, the quarterback failed to read a cornerback blitz and surrendered a sack-fumble to end the Vols chances to win. If Tennessee is to have any success this year, Guarantano needs to learn to read defenses and maintain poise when the game is on the line. He shows flashes of talent that are undeniable, but his pocket presence must improve with a shaky offensive line.
Offensive Line: D-
Speaking of the offensive line, the fans and coaching staff alike were hopeful the added depth and competition would begin to shine light at the end of the tunnel for this position group. It seems the Tennessee faithful may be in for another year of questions. Tennessee only gained 93 total rushing yards against a team that finished 124th in rushing defense a year ago surrendering 251 yards per game. Add to that four sacks including the game-clinching sack-fumble late in the fourth quarter, and the offensive line remains a liability for the Vols.
There were signs of progress with clean throwing pockets on numerous occasions in the first half, but the inexperience of this group revealed itself when the Panthers incorporated an exotic blitz. Tennessee will play much better front sevens this year in SEC play. There must be a sense of urgency for offensive line coach Will Friend to turn this group around.
Running Backs: C
The backfield for Tennessee grades out better than much of their teammates, although they will still have many mistakes to correct in the coming week. True freshman Eric Gray showed why coaches and fans have been excited to see him hit the field. In limited action, he tallied seven carries for 29 yards as well as six receptions for 51 yards. His six catches were second on the team behind senior star Jauan Jennings. Gray flashed open-field elusiveness and speed as well as soft hands out of the backfield. He will continue to get more touches this season as the Vols look for answers.
Ty Chandler once again led the backfield with 48 yards and the Vols only rushing touchdown. He showed great burst and speed to hit the hole for a 31-yard scamper as the first quarter ended. Partly to blame for the opening fumble for the game, he likely will not be satisfied with this performance. Again, with only 93 total rushing yards, the entire offense and coaching staff will be looking to adjust their game plan moving forward. However, with penetration issues all night from the Panthers front 7, the running backs did not have room and space to showcase their talent. This group’s ceiling may be dictated by their blockers for the rest of the season.
Receivers/Tight Ends: C-
The receiving group was heralded as the leaders of this offensive unit. On this Saturday afternoon in Knoxville, they seemed to be out-hustled by a hungry Georgia State team.
There were some highlights from this group in the game. Marquez Callaway‘s touchdown catch was a signature acrobatic catch in coverage from the senior. He high pointed the ball and elevated above the outstretched arms of the corner for the touchdown. He will be rightfully trusted with 50-50 balls from his quarterback all year. Jennings was an emotional leader for the team all night, trying to will his teammates out of an apparent lull. He also led the team on the stat sheet, hauling in seven catches for 108 yards and the final touchdown of the contest. He fought through arm tackles for the extra yards.
However, much like the rest of the team, there didn’t seem to be a sense of urgency until it was too late. Receivers were slow off the ball. Upperclassmen were running incorrect routes. Downfield blocking seemed lazy or wasn’t there at all. Receivers dropped passes including what would have been a tough touchdown catch that went through the hands of Josh Palmer. In all, it was just as uninspiring a performance as their teammates on a night where the talent disparity should have created plenty of offense for the Volunteers. They will also receive below-average game grades for Georgia State.
Georgia State came into the game riding a seven-game losing streak. They finished 2018 ranked 98th in total offense. Still, they were able to come into Neyland Stadium and rack up 213 yards and three touchdowns on the ground alone. Senior quarterback Dan Ellington torched Tennessee’s defense for 200 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns. Neither the coaching staff nor the players had an answer for the option play, as the Panthers rushing attack shredded the defensive front. There is youth all over the defense, but the defensive performance today was not characteristic of a Pruitt defense. They will receive worse game grades for Georgia State than their counterparts on the offensive side of the ball.
Defensive Stat of the Game: 213 rushing yards allowed, three TD.
Defensive Line: F
Fans and media alike may never know how the Aubrey Solomon saga with the NCAA affected the preparation of this unit after the Emmit Gooden injury. After the loss of Gooden, the entire defensive front did not have any experience playing in major college football. After the waiver was received for Solomon, the talented transfer brought more experience than the rest of the position combined. Still, with this little experience, there were questions abounding. Those questions are more pertinent than ever. The Panthers were able to consistently rush for five yards or more on first down all night as the defense failed to ever garner much of a push. The entire defense managed only six tackles for loss.
The linebackers failed to fill their gaps in the running game as the Panthers gashed the Vols time after time on grueling drives. The defensive pursuit also disappointed, as the Vols failed to contain the elusive senior quarterback Ellington. True freshman linebacker Henry To’oto’o led the Vols with seven tackles including one assisted tackle for loss. He led a group of young linebackers that could be the future of the Tennessee defense. However, today, there were too many freshmen mistakes to overcome. The loss of leader Daniel Bituli further damaged the integrity of this group. Backside pursuit was non-existent, and players consistently missed option responsibilities on the pitch. Be it due to youth or preparation, the linebackers were slow to react to keys all afternoon.
With the ground game for the Panthers so effective, there really wasn’t much opportunity for the secondary to be tested in this contest. Senior Shawn Shamburger filled in admirably for the suspended Bryce Thompson. He tallied six tackles including one key sack from the outside. He also very nearly had a diving interception for the Vols that fell incomplete as it hit the ground. Nigel Warrior drew a controversial pass interference call that allowed a Georgia State drive to continue. Still, in all, it was a quiet night for the defensive backs as the Panthers saw no need to abandon the running game against a porous front seven. They may be called upon in greater capacity moving forward in single coverage to free up linebackers for blitz packages.
Special Teams: A
Special teams were a lone bright spot for the Vols on Saturday. They will get the best game grades for Georgia State. Brent Cimaglia went three-for-three on field goals and extra points as well. Along with Jennings and Gray, he seemed to be one of the few players on the sideline playing with fire for the power T. After drilling his long field goal of 48 yards, he showed both passion and seeming frustration with a short celebration.
Nice kick by Cimaglia. Also nice to see emotion and try to fire his team and the stadium up. Trail #GSU, 21-20.
— John Tisdell (@JohnTisdell) August 31, 2019
Joe Doyle also dropped his lone kick inside the 20-yard line with a nice 47-yard punt. However, with the Vols trailing for much of the second half, he did not get another chance to kick in this contest. Lastly, Callaway showed why he was a preseason All-SEC selection for punt return specialist with a great return late in the contest. Overall, special teams were a nice boost for the Vols. However, ultimately the offense and defense could not take advantage.
Ultimately, an upset of this magnitude will reflect poorly on the coaching staff. This team seemed underprepared, under-motivated, and overly confident from the opening snap. The team never seemed sharp, and all these factors contributed to ever-growing confidence on the Georgia State sideline. The lack of urgency along the sideline during one of the worst losses in program history was disconcerting. The halftime interview with Pruitt seemed far too apathetic for the situation. We will never know the tone and content of the halftime speech from Pruitt, but it was obviously ineffective. There is a multitude of questions for this coaching staff to answer moving forward.
On offense, it seemed apparent that the coaching staff wanted to keep the gameplan as basic as possible. Unfortunately, that resulted in far too many stalled drives and three and outs. Fans were excited to see what adjustments to the offense new coordinator Jim Chaney would make to a unit that struggled last year. However, they were disappointed to see more inside runs into a shaky offensive line and quick passes. With such an advantage on the outside, it was a questionable decision to not take more downfield shots. In the end, any adjustments to the gameplan were too late to make a difference in the outcome.
Defensively, the team looked far too confused by the option. This ultimately comes down to preparation from the coaching staff. The running game was effective enough to warrant only 139 total passing yards required to defeat the Volunteers. Halftime adjustments were insufficient to improve the rushing defense, and Georgia State had their way with the Volunteers on the ground. Surrendering 38 points to a one dimensional Sun Belt team dictates questions about the defensive gameplan. Tennessee never forced Georgia State to beat them through the air, which allowed the Panthers to dictate the tempo of the game.
Next week, Tennessee takes on the BYU Cougars at 7:00 pm ET in Neyland Stadium. The contest will broadcast on ESPN. While it will be no consolation to Tennessee fans, many will speculate if Tennessee players and coaches were looking ahead to the primetime matchup with BYU. Therefore, Tennessee must take advantage of this opportunity to at least save face for the program. Be watching later this week for fellow Tennessee contributor Andrew Rose to provide a preview of next week’s matchup. This season, we will work together to bring you pregame predictions and post-game analysis on the Tennessee Volunteers.
Check us out on LastWordonCollegeFootball.com and our social media accounts @AndrewRoseLWOS and @ddozier89.