It has been 14 quarters since Tennessee’s offense crossed the goal line. That was more than a month ago in a narrow win over UMass that marks the last time this Vols team won a football game.
Now, Tennessee has released a statement this week that its only offensive star — running back John Kelly — is suspended for Saturday night’s game against Kentucky after being cited alongside freshman linebacker Will Ignont for possession.
Only once in the past 32 years have the Kentucky Wildcats found a winning formula against the Vols. This year, they’re 5-2 and playing against a team that is struggling so badly that fans are just counting down the moments left in coach Butch Jones’ tenure as Tennessee’s head coach.
These are rocky times on Rocky Top. But there have been fewer welcome sights in the history of Tennessee football than the sight of Kentucky coming up on the schedule. The Wildcats are a better team than Tennessee right now, but they’ve been anything but world-beaters themselves. Last weekend, UK took to the road to play Mississippi State and limped away with the same 45-7 deficit UT suffered against once-rival Alabama.
It was similarly ugly.
Now, the Wildcats are home in Lexington against a 3-4 Tennessee team that looks like a bowl game is anything but a guarantee. What’s going to happen? We’ll talk about that in a little bit, but first of all, let’s take a look back at last week’s keys and why UT lost to Alabama.
- Petition the SEC to let UT play 14 players at once on both sides: Obviously, this didn’t happen. The Vols played with 11 on both sides, and Alabama’s 11 were much, much, much, much [insert infinity here], much better. FAIL.
- Hurts (not) so good: Jalen Hurts didn’t have the best game of his career, but he was more than good enough, going 13-for-21 passing for 198 yards and a touchdown. He played a little more than a half. FAIL.
- Four turnovers: The Vols got two, scored off one and nearly scored off the other. Was far from enough. FAIL.
- Berry merry return game: He didn’t play. FAIL.
- Game of their life: Naw. Alabama out-gained UT on offense 604-108. If this was the game of the Vols’ lives, the rest of the season is going to be hideous. FAIL.
Put Snell in a shell
The Wildcats are a paltry 10th in the SEC in rush offense, and after such a promising freshman season, Benny Snell Jr. is averaging barely more than 4 yards per carry. That’s not good. The Vols have been awful against the run this season but very, very good against the pass.
That’s going to pit strength-vs.-strength with Stephen Johnson and UK’s passing game. But Snell is a major key. He’s good enough to dominate a game if the Vols let him, and so defensive coordinator Bob Shoop must find a way to shut him down. In the second half of the South Carolina game — a game that should have been a UT win — Gamecocks third-string running back A.J. Turner took over the game and led Carolina to a win. So, yeah, it’s happened.
Get Guarantano Going
There aren’t enough negative adjectives in the universe to describe Tennessee’s offense. It’s like if Dave Clawson’s 2008 Vols offense played every game against the 1985 Chicago Bears.
But if there’s ever going to be a game where redshirt freshman quarterback Jarrett Guarantano gets going, it’s going to be against the SEC’s worst pass defense. That comes this weekend, and if the Vols can’t take advantage of it, they may not score an offensive touchdown the rest of the year.
We talked about it last week, and we’ll continue to talk about it until the Vols actually do something productive on offense: Tennessee absolutely must get game-breaking plays on defense and special teams. Last weekend, Daniel Bituli had a 97-yard interception return for a touchdown in the Vols only score of the game. They got another fumble recovery on a fumble on a punt return, and UT took it down to the 1-inch line before failing to get across the goal line.
Is dynamic returner Evan Berry going to play? We all thought he would against Alabama, and it didn’t happen. If he does, it would be nice for UT if he took one to the house. The Vols need to get some turnovers and turn them into touchdowns to pull out a road win.
The Tim and Ty Show
There weren’t many bright spots at all against Alabama, but the Vols looked like freshmen running backs Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan had the speed to be difference-makers in any offense that didn’t just run sideways and go out of bounds.
With Kelly out, both will get their share of touches this weekend. The Vols need them to get to the second level and beyond. Kentucky’s defense isn’t awful, but it isn’t fast. This could be one of those games where Chandler or Jordan breaks free to the second level and is gone.
Let’s face it: The Vols haven’t been in friendly confines in a while. Last weekend, UT spent a terrible time in Tuscaloosa. With all the buzz around Jones’ job security, Knoxville probably hasn’t been rosy, either.
Few hate the Vols like they do in Lexington, but Tennessee is probably going to be happy to be away from the glare of the spotlight of negativity in Knoxville. They need to band together and play up to their capabilities.
Last week was a little disappointing. I felt great about six games, and OK about two. When the smoke cleared, I went 4-4, including two frustrating stunners. West Virginia absolutely collapsed at Baylor and was fortune to beat the Bears 38-36 after allowing 25 unanswered points. That cost me a sure cover. SMU pooped its pants in a narrow win over Cincinnati where it easily should have covered if not for all the mistakes.
The other two losses were just flat-out losses. Oklahoma didn’t cover 12.5 against Kansas State and was fortunate to win. Purdue went from being sure money all week to getting outright beat by Rutgers 14-12.
The wins were solid. Syracuse easily covered 17 points in a loss to Miami, Central Florida took care of business against Navy, South Florida handled Tulane and Georgia Tech walloped Wake Forest. So, we stayed three games over .500 and now sit at 30-27-1.
It’s gonna be better this week. Guaranteed.
- Tennessee/Kentucky under 46: I feel as good [bad?] about this one as I have all season. The Vols are worse than they’ve ever been on offense, and the defense is playing pretty well. This game has 20-14 written all over it.
- Louisville -2.5 over Wake Forest: You never know which Cardinals team is going to show up, but the Demon Deacons can’t do anything with Lamar Jackson. They aren’t fast enough.
- Appalachian State -3 over UMass. The Minutemen are going to have to do more than hang with the Vols and destroy lowly Georgia Southern to impress me. ASU coach Scott Satterfield always has his team up to play, and the Minutemen can’t ever hang with teams that have winning records.
- Arizona State +3 over USC: This line surprises me. The Trojans aren’t playing well, this game is in Tempe and Arizona State is playing very good football lately. Bet the money line here; the Sun Devils win outright.
- Arizona +3 over Washington State: Again, I was so totally wrong about the Wildcats. Who could envision quarterback Khalil Tate coming in and transforming this offense into being elite? This game in Tucson is going to be fun.
- Florida Atlantic -6.5 over Western Kentucky: The way Lane Kiffin has this Owls offense going, I’m riding them, even against a great quarterback like Mike White.
- Kansas State -24.5 over Kansas: Always bet against the Jayhawks. Always.
- Texas A&M Pickem vs. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs have been a much different team away from Davis Wade. I believe in what Kevin Sumlin is doing with the Aggies. They’ll win at home.