Nothing but good vibes emanates from Knoxville, Tennessee these days, where the Volunteers finished a neurotic 2019 season on a six-game win streak. The final record stood at a modest 8-5...but it was the most welcome 8-5 record the program has ever seen. If you had asked most fans after the first two games about their record predictions, virtually none would have said anything more than 6-6 (if that.)
Now that the dust has settled and the season as a whole can be evaluated, the one conclusion everyone can agree one is this: Tennessee football got much better as the season went on. If the team in November had played the entire season, it’s likely that the Vols are heading to the Outback Bowl and having more preseason top-25 hype.
A general trend of improvement is obvious. Breaking down what exactly went well is a bit more nuanced, and there still remain some areas that don’t have an obvious answer.
Jeremy Pruitt’s Defense
At the start of writing this article, I was going to specifically list certain positions. That’s still true for the offense, but on the defensive side of the ball, it makes more sense to just collectively praise them. Every single level of the defense turned into what we thought they’d be.
It certainly wasn’t like that at the beginning of the year. Chief among the disappointments was the defensive line, which had multiple blue chip players and great depth...yet got pushed around by inferior offensive lines for three of the first four games. After the bye week however, their fortunes turned around immensely. Tennessee’s defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage against the entire back half of the schedule, and even rotational players like Kivon Bennett and Kurott Garland began to look like SEC caliber starters. It’s all about maintaining that momentum heading into 2020.
Meanwhile, the linebackers and secondary shook off the funk pretty early and featured multiple players worthy of national recognition. Even more exciting? A lot of those guys were underclassmen. The only real difference maker Tennessee will lose is Darrell Taylor (Nigel Warrior turned into a good starter as well). The rest of their impact guys are coming back.
This is what was advertised with Jeremy Pruitt. An all-around brick wall defense that doesn’t have true “weaknesses” like other schemes. He has been recruiting for this for three years, and it finally looks like he’s matching the talent level he had at previous stops. Strap in for what should be a top-15 defense next year.
There is a very real chance that Tennessee’s starting offensive line next year is this from left to right: 5-star Wanya Morris, 5-star Trey Smith, 4-star Brandon Kennedy, 5-star Cade Mays, 5-star Darnell Wright.
The staff did this in just two years. They rapidly changed Tennessee’s biggest weakness into one of the most encouraging groups on the roster. The advanced stats from this year show a huge improvement, even if the group did end up in the “average” category. Yet keep in mind that was achieved with two true freshman starters in a conference stacked with elite defensive lines. By the end of the season, it was obvious the line found a groove in their rotation. They finished the year with rousing performances against their final four opponents, and they figure to improve with the transfer addition of Mays.
A couple of injuries could derail things if they’re serious enough, but by now Tennessee has enough players to be confident in their plan. Look to players like Jerome Carvin, K’Rojhn Calbert, Jahmir Johnson, and Jackson Lampley to play a role.
The six game win streak almost certainly saved both this recruiting class and the class after it. While Tennessee didn’t hit on as many targets as they wanted to, the Volunteers addressed virtually all their needs in the 2020 class in a big way. The class has 12 blue chips (with the possibility of adding more) and five of them are top-200 players. The Volunteers will be a more experienced squad in 2020, so gaining immediate impact players wasn’t high on the list, but more than a few can figure early into the rotation.
Pruitt has shown in the past two classes that he can recruit with the best of them, even if the on field performance isn’t elite yet. His overall class rankings might not be at the level fans expect, but a great sign of a solid recruiting base is who you’re beating out for players. In the 2020 cycle alone, Tennessee beat out teams like Clemson, Auburn, Georgia, Florida, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and more.
The next step for the Volunteers is jumping into that top-10 group. In order to do that, they’ll need to win more on the field and not have losses like Georgia State and BYU. If they can do that pretty manageable task, you should see Tennessee land even more elite players than they did in 2018 and 2019. It helps to have the entire backing of your school after you rallied to an 8-5 season with a stunning bowl victory. The program has a product to sell, and recruits will now be listening a lot more than they were three months ago.
Offensive Coordinator Jim Chaney
This will probably be the most unpopular part of this article. But I urge you to hold off any immediate response and genuinely evaluate Chaney’s performance this year.
Tennessee paid Chaney $1.5 million to leave Georgia and come to Tennessee. At Tennessee, he was provided with a talented but young offensive line, a veteran quarterback (who has obvious limitations, but there were more options behind him), an exciting stable of running backs, and a wide receiver room filled to the brim with talent, paired with proven results.
The end result was an offense that ranked 75th in SP+, 63rd in yards per play, 81st in yards per rushing attempt, and 36th in yards per passing attempt. All while looking substantially different than the offense that Chaney typically runs and is comfortable with.
Is that worth 1.5 million dollars?
We should praise Chaney for being willing to adapt and not be stuck doing something that doesn’t work. But, the nonsensical QB rotation, combined with a tendency to get stuck on certain play calls, and complete inability to finish in the red zone is a group of red flags that I don’t think we can just attribute to a lack of talent.
I don’t think Chaney is an awful coordinator. In fact, the numbers I posted above are an improvement over 2018 besides the SP+ ranking.
I do think that he puts a pretty hard ceiling on how good the offense can be. I also don’t think Chaney will get Tennessee to anything more than 8-4 and possibly 9-3 with a little bit of luck.
Right now, both of those records would sound pretty good for 2020. But if the program wants to be a genuine conference competitor, Chaney probably cannot be the coordinator.
Slow Starts After Off Weeks
This one I truly have no explanation for. Two of the worst performances for Tennessee football in 2019 came in the first game and the last game. The former was obviously after weeks of preseason camp and practice, while the latter was over a month after the final regular season game. The third worst performance? The game against Missouri, coming off a bye week.
To be completely fair, the generally positive game against Georgia was also after a bye week. But a 25% hit rate isn’t fantastic by any measure. For whatever reason, the Volunteers looked rusty even when they had more time to prepare.
The first game of the season? That’s understandable. You haven’t felt that environment in months and you’re still working out your roster. The bowl game against Indiana? That is a bit more worrying. Tennessee’s defense rose up to the task, but the offense was stuck in their old ways.
We know two things for certain after the 2019 season.
Jarrett Guarantano is not the answer at the position.
The hopes for contending in the SEC lay on someone else’s shoulders.
That’s not the level of certainty you want heading into the third year of a head coach. Many figured the situation would improve with Jim Chaney as offensive coordinator, but instead it got more confusing. You could even argue it got worse since now there seems to be a legitimate quarterback battle with no clear frontrunner.
Guarantano has reached his limit as a football player. For every beautiful rainbow he sends over the top of the defense, he follows it up with two ducks straight into a defenders hands. When you’re desperate for an offensive burst, he can provide it...but when you start him with the expectation that he’ll get the team into a rhythm, he’s incapable of doing so. He is a poor man’s Erik Ainge without a season like 2007 to support him.
Behind him? A true freshman who flashed in multiple games, yet still managed to lose the starting job due to injuries and head scratching decisions. J.T. Shrout also deserves mention, but he had one good pass in 2019 and was unable to make headway in a crowded room.
Could Harrison Bailey start as a true freshman? Originally I thought there was a very small chance. Now that the season has played out, it’s a distinct possibility. Bailey has improved every single year in high school and will likely be the best pure passer in the quarterback room. He still needs to learn the playbook and attempt to beat out veteran guys in front him. If he does win the starting job, it means Tennessee has found the guy who will lead them back to an SEC Championship appearance. If he doesn’t...put those plans on the backburner until 2021.