We all got through the moral victories phase long ago, so it’s hard to come out of the second-consecutive 26-point loss feeling anything warm-and-fuzzy about the Vols.
This year isn’t going to go like any of us hoped, and we’re just going to have to deal with that.
But, despite being overmatched and despite not getting Georgia’s best effort in what resulted in a 38-12 loss in Athens on Saturday, there were some definite positives if you’re looking through your orange-colored glasses. There were players who responded after last week’s six-turnover fiasco in a disastrous loss to Florida. There was fight all the way to the end when UGA did what it was supposed to do and took a Tennessee turnover and tacked on a shove-it score.
Jeremy Pruitt was almost defiant afterward, standing up for his players and getting emotional about just how far the program has come under him. Yes, the Vols are 2-3 with difficult games against Auburn, Alabama and South Carolina following the bye week, and yes, making a bowl game still looks like a glimmering light far in the distance, but the strides are still evident.
I’ve preached so many times already this season that we’ve got to take pride in the strides, and that is so hard to do when you’re not overly competitive with your rivals. But we still need to. I think it’s becoming quite clear just how far away we are from a talent perspective.
Georgia big-boyed us on that final touchdown drive before the turnover tack-on, and that was tough to see for a team that wanted — maybe even needed — the good vibes that come with keeping it respectable on the scoreboard. But, until then, Tennessee traded punches pretty well.
Take this into consideration: Seven of Georgia’s points came on a fluke fumble recovery by Isaac Nauta after Nauta missed his block on Darrell Taylor, who stripped Jake Fromm of the ball. Nauta picked up the ball and raced 31 yards for the game’s first score.
When the Vols finally put the ball on the ground at the end of the game, UGA marched right down and scored then, too.
But if you take away those two bad bounces/mistakes, UT was schematically fine, at least on defense. It’s very encouraging to see how well Taylor rushed the passer, forcing two fumbles and registering a sack. It was great to see sophomore Will Ignont flying around out there, and though he had a couple of run fits that will hurt his grade in final film study, he’s the type of athlete the Vols need on the second level, and he’s developing.
At times throughout Saturday’s game, Tennessee had three true freshmen playing together in the secondary in Bryce Thompson, Alontae Taylor and Trevon Flowers, and those guys are getting more dependable, too.
The defensive line isn’t great, but they’re making strides. The massive chunk-yardage plays the Vols were allowing a year ago aren’t as frequent anymore, and within the framework of drives, UT was strong, riding the ebbs and flows and getting off the field against a superior team.
Sure, Georgia wound up laying the hammer down, but it was more of situation of being gassed rather than outclassed.
It’s easy to see where the maturity needs to come. Offensively, I’m still frustrated with Tyson Helton’s play-calling, and I’m not excited about Pruitt’s decision to punt near midfield late in the game still down multiple scores. At that point, you gamble because you need to try to win. It was almost as if he was content to keep it close, and that’s not the killer instinct you want. The decision to go for two after the second touchdown was puzzling too, but that’s understandable, and it’s erring on the side of aggression, which will always get you a free pass with me. Those were snafus from which he’ll grow, and, like his team, he’s learning on the fly, too.
Jarrett Guarantano’s toughness is evident, and though he still isn’t where he needs to be, he’s getting better. I thought the offensive line was much better at times against Georgia, even though the running game still struggled to get traction. Ty Chandler in space is something we need to see more of; and it’s disappointing that he only got five carries and five catches. To beat teams like UGA, you must get the ball in your playmakers’ hands, and Helton has to do a better job of that.
Scheming around the inefficiencies of the offensive line hamstrings Helton and UT’s offense, and until that improves dramatically, we’re all going to be frustrated with the results.
But the best thing coming out of Saturday is we aren’t the team that laid an egg against Florida. If that’s our identity, we were going to be watching the worst Tennessee team in school history, and it’s encouraging to see the Vols clean up some of the mistakes, even if there are reams more to fix.
Looking ahead, this team isn’t hopeless for 2018, and I’m very encouraged by the groundwork being laid for the future. It will take two recruiting classes, but the defense will ultimately continue to improve. The Vols must get better offensive playmakers, but, again, that can be fixed by recruiting. Helton needs to get in a better groove and earn his money, but that also should be better with better players. (Doesn’t that cure all?)
We know two things about this year’s Vols: 1) we can’t afford to make mistakes like turnovers and penalties because we aren’t good enough to give anybody extra possessions and win, but 2) when we don’t make those mistakes, we’ll be in football games because they’re well-coached and well-prepared, even if they’re not well-equipped from an athlete standpoint to hang with the elites.
Kentucky looks like a difficult game, but it’s not unwinnable. While Missouri looks like a matchup nightmare because of its passing game, the Vols could be much-improved by then. There’s also no reason right now to mark off the Auburn, South Carolina or Vanderbilt off the list now. The Tigers have some issues, and though the Vols will be double-digit underdogs, it could help to have an extra week to prepare. South Carolina has better talent, too, but the Gamecocks have underachieved.
Six wins still seems like a long ways away, but it’s not impossible. Last week, I thought it was impossible.
That may be the smallest inkling of hope, but at least it’s some. This Tennessee team is beginning to learn how to play football the right way, and even though it won’t always do it, we’re starting to see the Vols being in position to make plays on defense and hitting a few things downfield on offense.
If you can’t see Pruitt’s passion for this team and this program, you’re not looking hard enough. This year is tough on us all, but it’s toughest on him and the players. Let’s just keep watching them improve. Maybe, by the end of the year, it will show in the win column.
If not, at least the frustration of building a foundation will be over.