Tennessee would have liked to seal up a bowl appearance on Saturday. While the Missouri Tigers were understandably favored, the Volunteers had a good idea of what they would be facing when the Tigers rolled into Neyland Stadium.
Unfortunately that did not mean much on their way to a 50-17 loss. It is understandable why the final result scares many fans who thought the team was making progress. Now the only remaining contest is the Vanderbilt Commodores, who are not the doormat they once were. Was the Missouri game a sign of things to come?
Not really. We break it down below and give what will be either our second-to-last or third-to-last edition of The Flip Side.
Vanderbilt’s offense is powered by their run game. Ke’Shawn Vaughn is a stellar tailback who averages more than seven yards per carry, and he’s already gone for 10 touchdowns. That is majorly concerning for a Tennessee team which just allowed Missouri to average more than 12.0 yards per carry and amass over 250 yards on the ground.
There is just no consistency from the front seven. They went from shutting down arguably the best running back in the SEC to letting the Tigers trample all over them. The linebackers were particularly notable, as Missouri never had trouble with defenders in the backfield or clogged running lanes. Much of that can be attributed to Drew Lock forcing the defense into difficult situations, which should not be overly common when facing Kyle Shurmur. Tennessee can use a similar game plan to the Kentucky game for defeating the Commodores, but it is going to require the front seven to bounce back.
If they do not? Vanderbilt could waltz in and run it down their throats for the victory.
The health of starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano might decide the game. If he is good to go, Tennessee will likely be the favorite, thanks to his ability to limit turnovers and take full advantage of a talented receiving corps. If not, it will go down to the wire.
The game against Missouri should hopefully end all discussions about the quarterback battle and if the staff made the right choice. Keller Chryst had the same number of interceptions in that game as Guarantano committed all season. To make it more painful, Chryst’s turnovers were at the absolute worst times, including an interception near the end of the second quarter that allowed the Tigers to go into the locker room with a 16-point lead instead of a 9-point lead.
Chryst is a fine backup quarterback if Guarantano gets banged up or has to go out for a short period of time. Chryst can capably run the offense in his absence. But he is clearly not the solution for a full game.
5-6 record. One final game against a “rival” to decide bowl eligibility. The first year of a new head coach. Something that could make or break your season.
That is a lot of pressure for a team which has mixed results responding to it. On one hand, there was the Florida game which turned into a circus of turnovers despite the hype surrounding it. On the other hand, there is the Kentucky win which showed the ideal form of Tennessee football that Jeremy Pruitt is building. It is a coin flip as to which Tennessee team will show up mentally. That is a scary situation heading into a game against a not-terrible Vanderbilt squad.
One frustrating aspect is the team’s propensity for letting bad plays snowball out of control. It once again happened against Missouri, where the Volunteers started committing turnovers that led directly to a blowout.
The numbers are illuminating. In 6/11 games this season, Tennessee has committed a turnover. Of those six games, Tennessee has committed multiple turnovers in four of them.
One fumble or interception is not enough to down a team. But it can be if your players are mentally unprepared and let errors get into their head.
Run Game Potential
Vanderbilt is very susceptible to getting overpowered on the ground. The S&P rankings have them outside the top-100 in run defense, and season results make it clear why. The Commodores have surrendered at least 200 yards rushing to 6/7 SEC opponents. If there is a game where Tennessee should be able to rely on their backs, it is this one.
The offensive line will obviously the limiting factor here. Still, Ty Chandler is explosive enough and versatile enough that he should be able to find success. Even against Missouri he had some nice plays and displayed that explosiveness which makes him so valuable. Tim Jordan could also bounce back after being largely shut down by the Tigers.
The return of Guarantano can take the focus off this group and let them work like they had been in the previous two contests. If they can run on Kentucky, they can run on Vanderbilt.
Your weekly reminder that the Tennessee special teams remain solid. Punter Joe Doyle once again averaged almost 44 yards per attempt and Brent Cimaglia was perfect on both field goals and extra points. It is a small positive. But those small positives can be the difference between a bowl game and sitting on the couch for the postseason.