The Vols (1-3) will take on the No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs (4-0) for the 49th time on Saturday. Both teams currently hold a 23-23-2 mark, but this week’s matchup feels particularly uneven. Tennessee is in the midst of some pretty dark days, while Georgia continues to contend for a national championship.
But even though Tennessee has had a terrible 2019 season thus far, it doesn't mean that Jeremy Pruitt and his guys are ready to quit. There’s still a lot of football to be had and there’s still time for this team to improve as the year.
Tennessee hung tough with the Bulldogs last year, can they do it again - and maybe even pull out a win this time?
Tennessee was utterly embarrassed for the second straight season by the Florida Gators two weeks ago. A 34-3 romp in The Swamp proved that this team still isn’t ready to compete with the top teams in the SEC.
The biggest development from that game was the fact that Pruitt decided to bench starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano for true freshman Brian Maurer at halftime. Maurer was able to generate the game’s only drive that resulted in points, but it became painfully clear that he wasn’t ready, which led to Guarantano’s re-emergence at the position later in the game.
Pruitt’s decision to bench Guarantano and then bring him back in not only shows how disappointing the redshirt junior has been, but it has opened the door to more questions about the status of the program.
How short is Guarantano’s leash? What if he underwhelms again? Was Pruitt just trying to send a message when he benched Guarantano?
A struggling offense with no clear leader is not a good recipe for success, especially when you play in the best conference in the country.
Tennessee’s defense, on the other hand, looked better against the Gators, but there were still plenty of moments where Florida was able to take advantage and score points.
Georgia returns both Jake Fromm and D’Andre Swift, and both players have performed as expected in 2019. Those two are the leaders of an offense that averages close to 43 points/game (11th-best in the country) and have outscored opponents 171-40 through four games.
The offense is 34th in the country in terms of third-down conversion percentage (44.7%) and 15th in red zone scoring (95%). So, they’re impactful and efficient, which are two hallmarks of a great offense.
Defensively, they are as solid as ever. The Bulldogs held Notre Dame to just 17 points, 321 yards of total offense, and 3.5 yards per play. For context’s sake, the Fighting Irish average 38.3 points per game (21st), 419 yards of offense (65th), and 6.69 yards per play (22nd) so far this year.
Just like the Vols, the Bulldogs are also coming off of a bye week, so go ahead and toss out any preconceived notions of an “advantage” for the Vols based off of the extra prep time.
Make no mistake: Tennessee will have to play its best game in three seasons if it wants to win this game on Saturday.
What To Watch For
- Any sign(s) of life: How will the Vols look after the bye week?
- Tennessee’s defensive line vs. Georgia’s offensive line: The Bulldogs are huge up front and the Vols are...well, the Vols.
- Slow down Swift: Can Tennessee prevent him from making big plays?
- Response from Guarantano: Will he play well after his benching?
- Pruitt’s future: Another blowout loss could officially put him on the hot seat.
- QB Jarrett Guarantano: Can he rebound from the Florida game and show he is the answer at quarterback?
- RB Ty Chandler: Jim Chaney has to get this kid more involved in the offense.
- The offensive line: Hopefully this unit can continue to improve against a stout front seven.
- DT Aubrey Solomon: The Vols need to find an anchor on the defensive line and Solomon is the best candidate.
- LB Daniel Bituli: His senior experience should help the defense clean up its act.
- CB Bryce Thompson: Pruitt will need all of his playmakers at full-go on Saturday.
- QB Jake Fromm: He continues to be one of the best quarterbacks in the country.
- RB D’Andre Swift: Swift is the best running back in the country and must be accounted for.
- WR Lawrence Cager: The senior wideout leads the team in receptions and is tied for the team lead in receiving touchdowns (2).
- DL Tyler Clark: Tied for the team lead in sacks (1.5), it will be interesting to see how the Vols plan on containing him.
- LB Monty Rice: Georgia’s leading tackler can cover some serious ground and will lay the wood, as well.
- DB JR Reed: Reed is a ballhawk and will certainly be looking Guarantano’s way this weekend.
Can you say “not good”?
It’s really hard to get excited for this game if you are a Vols fan. Usually, one would be pumped to see their team return to action against a top-flight opponent, but the Vols have shown that they are more a door mat than a door when it comes to playing fellow SEC teams.
It’s simple. If the Vols continue to play like we’ve seen so far this year, then expect another miserable Saturday showing. It would take major, major improvement - and a lot of luck - for them to actually beat the Bulldogs, but if they can come out and play halfway competent, then fans may still be somewhat-proud to wear their orange the following Sunday.
Let’s hope it’s at least the latter and not the former.