November has come and gone, and here stand the Tennessee Volunteers, bowl eligible. The Vols finished the season 7-5 and third in the SEC East, just where many predicted they would finish in the preseason. In all, this season followed the path everyone expected, right? Well, not so much. After a disastrous 1-4 start, it seemed a season of hope was over before it started. However, the Vols battled back to win six of their last seven including a running five-game win streak. It was a marvelous turnaround that has the program buzzing. Here we recap the 2019 Tennessee football season and what it means moving forward.
The Tennessee faithful were very hopeful leading into the season. The Volunteers returned a large majority of the starters from 2018, and with a few coaching upgrades, they were even looking like preseason dark horse contenders to some. Enter Georgia State. Tennessee is still trying to get the bad taste of the 38-30 loss to the Sun Belt foe out of their mouth. The home loss was humiliating for a program that has grown to understand every nuance of that word. They followed that with a heartbreaking loss to BYU in overtime, and many left the season for dead.
Some were questioning if Coach Jeremy Pruitt was in over his head. It seemed as though the Vols would top their worst season in school history from just two years prior. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano was showing obvious signs of regression from his breakout 2018 season, and the defense was struggling to find an identity, particularly against the run. A reprieve against FCS foe Chattanooga gave the Vols a breath, but another humbling loss to rival Florida in the swamp continued to push a bleak narrative. The start of the 2019 season was one of the worst in Tennessee football history.
A Quarterback Change Sparks Life
While the defense was certainly struggling early in the season, the offense seemed to be the most disappointing turnout. Tennessee had invested heavily in new offensive coordinator Jim Chaney over the offseason, and the early dividends were meager, to say the least. Most notably, the regression of redshirt junior quarterback Guarantano was the most surprising. This in spite of Chaney’s repertoire as a fantastic developmental coach at the position.
After an abysmal half against rival Florida, in which he had already thrown two interceptions, Guarantano was benched in lieu of freshman Brian Maurer. The freshman would go on to get his first start the next week as No. 3 Georgia came to Knoxville. Maurer seemed to spark the offense and helped Tennessee jump out early to a surprising 14-10 second quarter lead. While Georgia’s depth outlasted the Vols, it was an encouraging sign of life for a season on life support.
Emergence of the Sixth man.
After his unceremonious benching against the Bulldogs, many assumed Guarantano’s Tennessee career was effectively over. Most chalked it up to coach speak and lip service when Pruitt asserted Guarantano would help the Vols win a game at some point throughout the remainder of the season. Those sentiments were only amplified when Guarantano seemed to call his own number on the goal line at Alabama. There was speculation he may hit the transfer portal as early as that Sunday amidst a tongue lashing from his head coach and the fanbase alike.
100-yard scoop ‘n score for Alabama 😳 pic.twitter.com/o7fZE6GeYC
— ESPN (@espn) October 20, 2019
Cue South Carolina. With Maurer ruled out in concussion protocol, fellow true freshman J.T. Shrout was given the nod to start the game. However, after a stalled opening drive, many were surprised to see Guarantano lead the offense onto the field for the next drive. Guarantano would go on to have a career night. He threw for 229 yards, two touchdowns, and zero interceptions. Were it not for a broken hand in the third quarter, he may have gone on to post even more impressive stats. He led the Vols to their most explosive offensive outing of the season in a 41-21 rout. He would go on to provide more production from the bench in a homecoming win over the 6-2 UAB Blazers and a come from behind win over Kentucky, in a cast no less.
It was the gutsy second-half comeback on a cold night in Lexington that reinstated his starter status. After the game, he shared that his teammates and coaches had begun calling him the “sixth man”. Next week at Missouri, he responded to regaining his starting position by joining Peyton Manning and Tyler Bray as the only Volunteer quarterbacks to throw for over 400 yards in a game. His redemption story is a key factor in the active five-game winning streak. His turning point also marked a turning point for the Tennessee football season
Defense Steps Up
Guarantano was not the only redemption story of the year. While a lot of the credit will go to the resilient junior, Tennessee’s defense showcased a turnaround all their own. Early in the season, the Vols struggled to stop the run. This was a large contributor to the aforementioned loss to Georgia State. The defense surrendered 213 rushing yards in that game as the Panthers ran the ball at will. With an entirely new defensive line and true freshmen starting all along the front seven, some growing pains were anticipated. After weathering the storm, the patience paid off in the second half of the season. This defense became a force to be reckoned with.
The front seven, led by senior linebacker Daniel Bituli and true freshman Henry To’oto’o, shut down strong running attacks including Kentucky and Hornung Award winner Lynn Bowden Jr. They shut out South Carolina and Kentucky in the second half of those games, nearly shut out UAB, apart from a late touchdown in the fourth quarter, and held Vandy and Missouri to a combined 30 points. Nigel Warrior finally blossomed in his senior season, as the safety finished second in the SEC with four interceptions. The defense averaged a mere 14.2 points allowed over the last five games. That mark would have ranked as eighth in the nation and second in the SEC. It seems Pruitt has finally instilled his identity in a young defense, providing hope for the future of the program.
Gator Bowl Bound
Now, after some late bowl selection drama, the Vols will take on the Indiana Hoosiers in the Taxslayer Gator Bowl. It is the program’s first postseason appearance in three years. Tennessee has a chance to finish the 2019 football season with eight wins for the first time since 2016. More importantly, the Vols were able to show continued improvement from last season. Tennessee coaches hope improvement will translate to momentum on the recruiting trail with early signing day approaching. With key freshmen such as To’oto’o and Eric Gray contributing early, another strong finish and elite recruiting class could be the next step the program returning as a contender. Tennessee will then look to start a new decade off right with a win in Jacksonville on January 2nd.