Tennessee Bowl Bound After 1-4 Start

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How The Season Began

A Tennessee bowl game was something everyone expected in July. However, they were five weeks into the 2019 season and the Tennessee Volunteers were sitting at 1-4. The first of those losses, to Georgia State, had Tennessee as the laughing stock of college football. The Vols followed that game up by being upset in double overtime against the BYU Cougars. That was the easy part of Tennessee’s schedule as they were expected to be 3-0 heading into showdowns with Florida and Georgia. Volunteer fans across the country soon found out that expectations are not always reality. Following blowout losses to their SEC East rivals, the Vols sat at 1-4 to open the season. Fans were calling for the firing of Jeremy Pruitt and many fans expressed their disgruntle with Jarrett Guarantano as his quarterback play struggled mightily.

Tennessee’s season seemed to turn around as Mississippi State came to town. Following an injury to starting quarterback Brian Maurer, the Vols were lead to an upset victory by Jarrett Guarantano and a stout Tennessee defensive performance. The win marked Tennessee’s first SEC victory in over a year. Then Alabama happened. The Vols showed fight throughout the entire game but a very questionable late-game decision by Guarantano and lack of offense throughout put Tennessee at 2-5. The Volunteers were seven games into the season and a Tennessee bowl game looked nearly impossible.

Tennessee Turnaround

Very few were expecting the Vols to begin a four-game winning streak as South Carolina visited Knoxville. However, a game where Guarantano and redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout combined for 351 pass yards and three touchdowns, proved to be the turning point for Tennessee. During the four-game winning streak, Guarantano earned the respect of teammates and fans by willing and performing the Vols to impressive victories against UAB, Missouri, and Kentucky. Following a victory last Saturday against the Wildcats, Tennessee earned a bowl-birth for the first time since 2016.

Key Contributors Back on the Field

Tennessee’s turnaround this season did not happen because a football wizard waved his wand over the program. Players returning from injuries, players adjusting to new systems and increased execution played monumental roles in the turnaround.

In the opening few weeks of the season, it was evident that something was missing from the team. During the first two weeks, the Vols were without Daniel Bituli and Bryce Thompson. It would not be fair to say that Tennessee would not have lost if Bituli and Thompson had been active but it is safe to say that they would not have allowed an average of nearly 34 points to Georgia State and BYU. The evidence is clearly seen in the games since the two returned to the field. Aside from those opening games, the Tennessee defense is allowing a mere 16.8 points per game this season. That 16.8 points is against opposing players such as Jake Fromm, Tua Tagovailoa, Kylin Hill and Kelly Bryant.

Continuity Between Coaches and Players

Tennessee’s coaching staff has seen a large amount of turnover in recent years from head coach to coordinators. Guarantano, alone, has had four coordinators during his four seasons since redshirting as a freshman. Change in the magnitude can cause conflicts in player personnel and playing styles not matching up between coaches and players. This season coach Jeremy Pruitt hired Jim Chaney and Derrick Ansley as offensive and defensive coordinators. Early in the season, there were numerous instances where players could not read the defensive signals and the offense struggled to avoid penalties and could not get out of their own way especially in the red zone.

In recent weeks, both the offense and the defense have seen much more effective play-calling that has allowed the players to play their own style of football. Coaches have found the strongest traits of their players while the players have strengthened their communication and leadership with their coaching staff.

Guarantano Turnaround Fueled Vols Offense

Lastly, execution. Exactly zero out of the 130 division I teams can win a football game if they are not consistently executing on both sides of the ball. Against Georgia State, Tennessee allowed 240 rushing yards and allowed the Panthers to convert on 60% of their third downs. The same can be said for the Vols in their two overtime loss to BYU. Aside from Guarantano’s highly questioned fumble against Alabama, the Volunteers have limited their turnovers. During Tennessee’s four-game winning streak, the junior quarterback has thrown for 906 yards, seven touchdowns, and only one interception.

The same can be said for the offensive line and receiver groups. The coaching staff played an enormous amount of line combinations during the first three weeks of the season. This caused a lack of continuity and communication between linemen, the quarterback and their coaching staff. During Tennessee’s game against Florida, the coaching staff found their five and that group has been consistent aside from injuries. The receiving group, Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway specifically, have stepped up enormously during their winning streak. Against Missouri, the became part of the first trio to each have 100+ receiving yards in a game in program history.

Tennessee’s Stout Defense Led by Two Key Linebackers

Pruitt, known as a defensive mastermind, and Ansley, who had been a defensive backs coach for the Oakland Raiders in 2018, were expected to make a defensive statement from week one. Obviously, the results were the exact opposite. Early on, the defense looked clueless and could not stop an opposing drive. The defense allowed 36 points per game to their first four FBS opponents (Georgia State, BYU, Florida, and Georgia).

The defensive unit that we have seen over the past six games has been the complete opposite. The Ansley-led group has been the key reason for Tennessee winning five of their last six games. The development of freshman linebacker Henry To’oto’o has been nothing short of spectacular while Bituli has continued the dominance that we have come to expect from him. Coaches and fans alike would say that the defense has been the most improved side of the ball and the main reason for the Volunteers’ recent success.

Related Article: Kentucky Runs Over Vanderbilt

From Bad to Bowling

The Volunteers that we have seen over the past six games have been a different group than the one was seen in the opening weeks. The players and coaches have a fire and determination that has not been denied. Pruitt has gone from the hot seat to a coach taking the Vols to their first bowl since 2016. Guarantano has seen a roller coaster ride that no other has seen. He opened the season with enormous expectations which were erased immediately. The lowest of lows resulted in him being benched for a true freshman. After breaking his hand against Alabama, Guarantano has been the quarterback that coaches and fans had expected during the off-season. And lastly, the defense has gone from non-existent to unavoidable. By far, the most improved group on the field and the key reason that Tennessee will go to their first bowl games since 2016.

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