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The two things holding Tennessee football back

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One is obvious. The other, a bit more complicated.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Georgia Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Games like the 44-21 loss to the Georgia Bulldogs leave viewers with...complicated emotions.

Which part of the game do we put more stock into? The first two quarters, where the Tennessee Volunteers looked like they had the ability to compete for the SEC East? Or the final two quarters, where they looked like they were still at least a couple more years from being a genuine contender?

I think the game highlighted the deficiencies on both sides of the ball—but in very different ways. The defense undoubtedly played better than the offense for most of the game. The final numbers are a bit skewed because of the late game yards that Georgia put up, a good chunk of which were after four straight stalled drives from the offense. As good as a unit plays, they can’t overcome blistering inefficiency on the other side of the ball. 3-and-outs kill the confidence of a team.

When you’re up against a squad as talented and as deep as Georgia, you will have a very bad time if you let their depth shine through. You’ll have an even worse time if you play one of your most undisciplined efforts yet.

Fellow writer Evan Winter encapsulated some of the thoughts after Saturday, and I mostly agree with him—Tennessee isn’t ready for top competition. But why?

I think there are two reasons, above all, that Tennessee cannot break through the next class of teams in the conference.

Quarterback

Please understand that everything we say about Jarrett Guarantano is strictly related to his on-field play. By all accounts he is an upstanding person off the field and a good program ambassador. Keep this in mind as the rest of the season unfolds.

The Guarantano experience has, unfortunately, run its course. I could link back to the amount of times I’ve warned that he will look, at best, inconsistent. But gloating is unnecessary. We all see it, we all know what the reality is.

That’s not to say starting him in this game was a huge indictment. Georgia’s defense was swarming, and Guarantano was probably your best chance at a win. His struggles should not distract from an overall disappointing performance from the offensive line.

None of this contradicts with the idea that Guarantano has reached his ceiling as the leader of the offense. It also doesn’t contradict the idea that Harrison Bailey should begin to get worked in.

Bailey might not be ready today. He might not be ready next game. But, at some point you have to start looking to the future. Guarantano cannot be your quarterback beyond 2020. You will be wasting a defense that you have spent three years building.

And that’s the most frustrating part. Tennessee’s defense looks like they can compete with the big boys. Not since 2015 have the Volunteers looked like they actually belong on the field with dominant units. They have issues they need to clean up, but they are getting closer and closer to being the top-10 unit that Jeremy Pruitt wants.

To this point, Jim Chaney has done an overall good job of running the offense. He has quirks and he makes some weird choices, but he got the Volunteers to produce in the first couple of weeks. But one of the scariest thoughts you can have is if he does with Guarantano what he did with Jake Fromm at Georgia. Sticking to the entrenched veteran for so long that the future of the program (Justin Fields in that instance) starts to look elsewhere. Chaney can be stubborn, and if Tennessee wants to take the next step he needs to come to his senses.

Talent

This will probably sound very weird, since Jeremy Pruitt has done a fantastic job to this point of grabbing good recruiting classes. Even with fairly average to above average results on the field, Tennessee has been able to sign multiple top-100 players, 5-stars, and recruits that more successful teams wanted. There’s no denying Pruitt has improved this roster’s overall talent level after the two dud classes in 2016 and 2017.

But we need to put those results in the context of the competition. Pruitt has had just two full classes, with the 2018 signees being a transition year. Those two classes ranked 13th and 10th nationally. Again, that’s good results.

At the same time however, Georgia and Alabama traded off at the No. 1 and No. 2 class rankings. They also didn’t have transition classes in 2018, allowing them to further that gap with two more top-5 classes.

That gulf is so big that Tennessee would need to have a lot of dominoes fall in their favor in order to win. For about one half against Georgia, they came fairly close—even with penalties! But in the second half, it was obvious Georgia’s depth and talent was so good that any Tennessee mistake got magnified.

The absolute best thing Pruitt can do to solve this? Keep recruiting. Keep your current class together. Keep going after the guys who will make the same impact as someone like Henry To’o To’o. Thankfully, the Volunteers are in it for a handful of recruits that fit the bill. They are still missing some of that depth which would allow them to seriously compete with the dominant powers of the SEC for all four quarters.

Both of these reasons actually do have relatively “easy” fixes, compared to other systemic issues that hamper programs. The Volunteers do have a much better locker room culture than they did in 2017, and that is arguably a tougher task to fix than anything on the field. Look at programs like Texas and Florida State for examples of why locker room issues can destroy your results.

And maybe that’s why I’m not as down on Tennessee as others are. Yes, it really sucked to see the late game collapse. Yes, it is very frustrating to see certain players revert to their previous selves.

But this was already a game which fans marked up as a loss coming into the season. Plenty thought it wouldn’t even be close.

For two quarters, Tennessee hung tough and went blow for blow with one of the best teams in the nation. You can’t survive off moral victories, but you sure can build on them. The routes to fixing your issues are very clear.