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Tennessee Football: Making Sense of the Quarterback Battle

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A game of musical chairs has just one left...

Georgia State v Tennessee Photo by Silas Walker/Getty Images

You would be forgiven if you entered the game versus Kentucky thinking that Brian Maurer was the quarterback making headlines in a victory. Most of us thought the true freshman would return to solidify the starting role, fully healthy with an array of weapons at his disposal.

Instead, we’re talking about Jarrett Guarantano going 7-for-8 for 115 yards and two touchdowns. He didn’t get many chances to air it out, but when he did, boy did he make it count.

Guarantano’s performance against Kentucky was shocking—in the best way possible. Despite dealing with a broken hand, Guarantano had arguably one of his more accurate days throwing the ball. It seemed like he was hyperfocused and playing like his old 2018 self.

After watching the game again however, I do need to say this: A lot of Guarantano’s throws were not “difficult” in a traditional sense. Yes, he did display a knack for ball placement on the outside shoulder, while also throwing it with the right arc for athletic receivers to win the battle. But he felt very little pressure on most of them, and a few (this and this for example), he waits quite a while before making a decision.

Much of this has to do with Kentucky’s defensive scheme and what they are willing to allow. Consider how Guarantano has now had back-to-back years of stellar performances against Kentucky. Something tells me that at least part of it has to do with the defense they run.

The tape also reveals that Maurer’s main issue was the rust from not playing for a couple weeks. In looking back on his first few series, Maurer made a good decision on virtually all of his throws. He either found a pocket in Kentucky’s scheme, evaded pressure to find an open receiver, or decided against risky throws. What happened was that some of his passes were off the mark, and others were forced because of pressure allowed by the offensive line. Maurer has the arm talent to make every throw on the field, so it’s not an ability issue. At least two of his dirt-hoppers were on his first two series as well.

In the early second quarter drive that resulted in a Brent Cimaglia field goal, Maurer clearly felt comfortable and started delivering on tough throws. A terrible personal foul on Trey Smith stunted the drive—though Maurer did a great job regaining some of that yardage with his scrambling. He did have some suspect throws in the 2-minute drill near the end of the first half, however.

None of this is to say that Maurer had a better night. Even if Guarantano had a relatively “easier” path thanks to better protection or playcalling rhythm, the offense still relied on him to actually convert those opportunities to something meaningful. Guarantano absolutely delivered on that part. It also matters if you’re following what the coaches want you to do and how they want to attack a defense.

Overall I finished the rewatch feeling less impressed with Jarrett Guarantano’s outing, and a bit better about Maurer’s outing.

That, unfortunately, still doesn’t solve the conundrum.

Tennessee v Kentucky Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

If you held a gun to my head, and told me to pick the starting quarterback for the final two games of the season, I’d go with Brian Maurer. Here’s why.

If you looked at the past month of on-field play, and solely focused on that, Maurer would be the slight favorite. Simply because he has started more games and the offense looked better than it did in the first half of the season. Guarantano makes it tough since he has had nice moments and encouraging spurts—most notably in the South Carolina and Kentucky games. Much of that success seems to be tied to playcalling.

Chaney (or maybe Pruitt) is moving away from the run-heavy game that he brought with him to Knoxville, and instead choosing to air it out. It has completely changed the outlook of the offense, which is finally utilizing the athletes it possesses at wide receiver and letting its quarterbacks take shots downfield. That is exactly the type of offense someone like Guarantano thrives in.

Yet the preliminary results from Maurer make it obvious that not only can he also hit those shots—he can run with the ball and force defenses to account for his legs in a way that Guarantano has been unable to for three years. Tennessee’s run game has been a bit rusty in the middle stretch of the season, and a well-known lubricant is a quarterback who can confuse a defense with the option. Guarantano might provide a little better results in the vertical passing game, but he hasn’t shown the designed running ability that Maurer has.

Statistically the two are fairly equal on the ground. If you remove sacks and sack yardage from rushing stats (which should be the standard but the NCAA statkeepers are weird like that) Maurer has 17 attempts for 75 yards and two touchdowns. Guarantano has 26 attempts for 107 yards*. The difference is that I suspect Guarantano’s yardage comes from scrambling, and he has never been able to fool a defense with option plays. Maurer actually forces a defense to respect his ability to keep the ball on the same plays. So while the numbers look equivalent, how they gain them and how they impact a defense is not.

*Keep in mind that Guarantano started five games and played significant snaps in four others. Maurer has started in four and played significant snaps in one other. Guarantano having just nine more attempts is telling.

Mississippi State v Tennessee Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images

Your next game is going to be against a reeling Missouri Tigers team that has spent the last month collapsing. They might give Florida a good fight, but regardless if they win or lose, they’re going to be putting quite a bit into that game at home. Tennessee travels to face what will either be a further demoralized Tigers team, or an amped Tigers team ready to finish the season strong.

If you can, you do not want bowl eligibility to hinge on a Vanderbilt team with nothing to lose. Getting the Missouri win would provide a much needed stress relief for the program and ensure that a key sign of progress is obtained.

Your best chance to do that is with Brian Maurer.