It was an exciting time for Jarrett Guarantano and Peyton Ramsey as they entered fall camp back in August. Both quarterbacks were looking to build on solid 2018 seasons, but they were also hooking up with new offensive coordinators and new offensive systems that would take their game to the next level.
Things changed quickly, however, as Ramsey lost his starting job to redshirt freshman Michael Penix Jr. during fall camp. Guarantano opened Tennessee’s season as a starter, but it all fell apart with a season-opening loss to Georgia State. He would go on to struggle mightily over the next few weeks and eventually gave way to true freshman Brian Maurer as the starting quarterback.
Penix Jr. and Maurer showed plenty of flashes of promise, but both also were hampered by injuries as starting quarterbacks.
The injuries - which are always unfortunate - gave Guarantano and Ramsey a shot at redemption.
Ramsey’s turn came first. Penix Jr. missed games against Ohio State, UConn, and Nebraska before a broken collarbone ended his season for good. He would go on to miss the last three games of the season.
Indiana went 3-3 with Ramsey as the starter over those six games. That record doesn’t include the game against Maryland, where Ramsey had to fill in for an injured Penix Jr., who was knocked out of the game. The game was tied, 14-14, when Ramsey entered the game. He would go on to complete 20-of-27 passes for 193 yards and a touchdown - which was the go-ahead touchdown - while leading his team to a 38-24 win.
Ramsey played some of his best football over those six games. He completed 67% of his passes for 1,685 yards to go with nine touchdowns and four interceptions. It’s obvious that his play has been integral in helping Indiana secure its first eight-win season since 1993.
“Peyton is a dog man,” junior receiver Whop Philyor told the Indiana Daily Student. “He’s tough as nails. You see him out there and he’s taking hits and everything for us. So we gotta play for him because of the things he did for us. That’s my boy.”
He never hung his head and pouted when lost his job. He never bitched on the sideline. He just continued to show up and go to work and be a good teammate.
And it paid off.
Maurer was named the starter before the Georgia game and looked good, which gave head coach Jeremy Pruitt the confidence to start him the next week against Mississippi State. The young quarterback was able to help the Vols get out to a 10-3 lead before a concussion forced him out of the game.
Just like Ramsey against Maryland, Guarantano stepped in and played very well to help the Vols win the game and get their first SEC win of the 2019 season. He even threw 39-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Byrd that officially put the Bulldogs out of their misery.
The performance wasn’t enough for Guarantano to get his job back, though, and things got even worse the next week down in Tuscaloosa. Maurer was knocked out of the game with another concussion and Guarantano had to come in for him just like he did against the Bulldogs.
But this time, he made a crucial error in deciding to keep the ball during a designed handoff on the goal line. Guarantano fumbled the ball and an Alabama defender scooped it up and returned it 99-yards for a touchdown that robbed Tennessee of any chance at an upset.
Maurer’s concussions were too much, but Pruitt still didn’t trust Guarantano. In fact, he decided to start wide receiver Jauan Jennings at quarterback the next week against South Carolina. Third-string quarterback J.T. Shrout even saw snaps after Jennings while Guarantano sat on the bench.
He had hit rock bottom. It seemed like there was no coming back.
The kid kept fighting, though, and he caught a break during the South Carolina matchup.
The Vols needed a spark after going down 7-3 early in the first quarter, so they turned to Guarantano. His first drive was a 17-play, 77 yard drive that stalled out at the SC1, but that’s exactly what was needed to get going. He would go on to throw for over 200 yards and two touchdowns in that game, which the Vols won, 41-21.
It was the first game of five-game win streak for Guarantano and the Vols, and it was the first game of Guarantano’s redemption story. Over the next four games, the Vols would go 4-0 and he would throw for nearly 800 yards - including a career-best 415 yards at Missouri - with six touchdowns to two interceptions.
Now, Tennessee is 7-5 and is playing in its first bowl game since 2016.
And the Vols have Guarantano to thank for it.
The resiliency that is shared between these two quarterbacks is what football is all about. Life continued to throw crap at them, but they picked themselves up off the mat, and now, they have a shot to inject new life into their respective programs with a bowl win.
And that alone should make for a helluva matchup on Thursday.