If you’re not encouraged about the improvement and development of the Tennessee Volunteers over the 2018 season, it’s because of some pre-programmed belief that we’re destined to fail.
I get it. The Vols lost (again) to South Carolina on Saturday night, blowing a 21-9 lead to lose 27-24 and fall to 3-5 on the season and 0-7 all-time against Will Muschamp, of all people. It’s tough to stomach, even after all these losses, all these years.
But, as I tweeted Saturday night, it’s OK to be unhappy and to be critical of some of the coaching decisions against the Gamecocks while still being encouraged about the future. That’s where I am today, and it’s where I expect I’ll straddle throughout the remainder of the frustrating first season of the Jeremy Pruitt era.
There are sickening losses mixed in with signature wins. While we all expected to lose to Alabama and Georgia, you can’t turn the ball over six times against a mediocre Florida team and expect to win. The Vols were pummeled in that game, and though the Gators have proved to be the better team as the season has matured, you’d love to play that game again mistake-free.
After stunning Auburn at Jordan-Hare Stadium with a near-flawless performance, the Vols had another chance to beat another team Saturday night that is probably a little better, probably a little more established, probably a little further along in the process under Muschamp. There were opportunities. They were blown.
You hope the lessons are learned from these difficult losses, but it’s OK to be critical of some of the things that happened. The penalties already have been touched upon on this site, and they were crushing. Pruitt’s decision to go into halftime up 14-9 rather than try to get late points with all your timeouts wound up being something we look back at and cringe, especially considering his aggressive style of play this season.
Not challenging the South Carolina fumble at the goal line was puzzling — even if the SEC should have reviewed the play and failed. What do you have to lose if you’re Pruitt? You can’t not challenge it because you think it may not get overturned. That was a massive play in the game that would have meant possession and maintenance of a lead. To choose to let it slide, regardless of how you think the hapless officiating crew would have ruled, was disappointing.
But this team is learning how to improve, and the coaches are learning how to manage the game. It’s a new concept for them all. We don’t have to love it, but those little things like penalties and in-game decisions and drops by Josh Palmer on tough balls but ones he could have had, and Jarrett Guarantano hanging onto the ball too long, and Jauan Jennings’ taunting penalty that gave the Gamecocks good first-half field position that resulted in a touchdown were all “little” things that added up to big things.
There were big frustrations, too, like the defensive staff’s inability to do anything to counter South Carolina’s offensive tempo, and UT’s continued offensive line woes and struggles to pressure the quarterback, but those things aren’t going to be fixed overnight.
The encouragement came in the big things Saturday, even if the biggest thing (a win) eluded the Vols once again.
I continue to be baffled by the contempt I see for Guarantano on social media. Is he the perfect quarterback? No, far from it. Does he need to grow and learn and develop? Sure he does, and he needs to at a quicker pace. But the kid didn’t throw downfield a lot Saturday night because he didn’t have time to. Get used to it. That’s because this offensive line is awful. Don’t fault him for the game plan that he executed, and though there are flaws that can keep UT from winning some games, don’t overlook how far he’s come and the things he’s doing well.
You want Keller Chryst to start? Fine. There is certainly a handful of you. But the things Guarantano is doing well outweighs the things he’s struggling with, in my opinion. He’s getting a lot of blame for the offensive line’s inability to give him even three seconds in the pocket, and that is baffling to me. Maybe Chryst reads blitzes better, and maybe he should get a shot. I don’t know; I certainly haven’t given up on Guarantano’s future, nor do I necessarily think he is the worst of the two valid quarterback options.
Maybe I’m behind the curve on that. Those who don’t want him there sure know how to voice their disdain, and it doesn’t help matters when Guarantano finally has time like on the 4th-down play at the end of the game, and hangs onto the ball too long.
But I was encouraged by the offense and Tyson Helton working around their major limitations against the Gamecocks. They got the ball to running backs and receivers on screens and swing passes, effectively moving the ball downfield from marker to marker. The Vols had 144 rushing yards, and Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan ran the ball effectively at times and fell forward. There was the brilliant play call on the Carlin Fils-aime touchdown run, and Tennessee was a remarkable 11-of-16 on third-down conversions against a defense that came into the game fourth nationally, allowing less than 25 percent conversions on the year.
As Pruitt said afterward, the offense played good enough to win.
You can blame the Swiss cheese defense that had no answer for the ‘Cocks’ quick tempo, and you can even blame the poor officiating for the botched fumble call and the ghost pass interference call, but you can’t blame offensive production. If you do, you’re barking up the wrong tree.
The defense had too many blunders like Alontae Taylor letting Bryan Edwards behind him, missed tackles and bad run fits, but this is a unit that also has enjoyed its moments this year. When you see Darrin Kirkland Jr. trying in futility to chase down a running back, Baylen Buchanan get torched or Todd Kelly Jr. failing to catch up to a receiver who’s blown past him, that’s just talent. There’s nothing Pruitt nor anybody else can do about that. The glimmers you see from that unit are few and far between because there just isn’t enough there.
It’s the same with story with the offensive line, especially now that Trey Smith is gone for who-knows-how-long and Brandon Kennedy is out for the year. What the Vols have in the trenches just isn’t good enough. It’s a nice story how much better the Vols’ four senior defensive linemen are this year than at any time in their career, but that doesn’t mean they are top-notch SEC players. They aren’t, but they’re what we have.
So, any defensive development on that side of the ball needs to be found in film study (which I have) and in the fact that players are more often than not in positions to make plays (they are) whether they make them or not. That’s why I’m encouraged on that side of the ball, despite them not being good enough right now.
Other than the Auburn game, there was little quantifiable evidence of huge offensive hopes for the future until last night. This team is playing better, and Helton called a very good game, one that should have produced a win. Just make a couple more plays and commit a couple fewer penalties, and the outcome could have been different.
But it wasn’t. And here we are. With — according to ESPN — a 17 percent chance to make a bowl game with Charlotte, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt left. Though the Vols should beat Charlotte, UK is ranked 11th nationally. The Wildcats won’t scare anybody with their offense, but they win. The defense is the truth, and UT’s slow linebackers aren’t a good matchup for Benny Snell. Missouri’s Drew Lock and Vanderbilt’s Kyle Shurmur are capable of torching Tennessee through the air.
And now we have to win three of four to make a bowl game.
It’s not going to be easy, and the goal was always a bowl. So, you can look at the failure to get to one as a knock on Pruitt’s first year. That’s fine; he’s a big boy. He can take it. It doesn’t mean you’ve given up on him or you’re a bad fan or you’re a poor-mouther or you are a troll.
It means you expect more, even when we probably shouldn’t.
But don’t give up on this team quite yet, either. The season isn’t over, and a bowl is still attainable. The failure to make a bowl, though, isn’t outright failure. This program is being built with players hopefully learning how to play the right way, where to be and what to do.
Saturday was a bump in the road, and it’s OK to be equally encouraged and disappointed today. Now, this program just has to learn to win.
Yes, we’ve been here before. But maybe this time is different, right? They can’t afford to make the little mistakes they did against the Gamecocks, or we’ll never find out.