It’s been a long time; too long.
The longest offseason in the history of Tennessee football is over. We endured the worst season in UT football history, the firing of clown coach Butch Jones, a debacle of a coaching search that saw us triumph as a fan base and ultimately claim major victory with the ouster of athletic director John Currie, the hiring of legend Phillip Fulmer at the position and the ultimate settling on Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt as head coach.
Pruitt has won us over early with his down-to-earth demeanor and his no-nonsense approach; not to mention some recruiting victories. But we’ve got to take a baby step to take a big one, and the only way to do that is on the field.
Football is back. And for the first time in a long while, we can feel at least moderately comfortable that we’ve got a football guy who knows how to coach football who’ll be leading out the Vols against West Virginia tomorrow.
How will our Vols look? That, we don’t know. So, it’s impossible to figure how the game is going to go. But that won’t stop us from giving you a prediction now, will it? NEVAH!
Welcome to another season of Locks & Keys, where we give you five keys for the Vols to win the football game of the week and also give you some locks [that are normally far from that] for you to play if gambling were something that was allowed in your state. But since it isn’t in Tennessee, we’d never really do that now, would we?
This year, we’re going to do things a little differently. We’re gonna have a little structure to this shindig. We’ll give you five keys and seven locks for each of these columns. I’d love for you to add your own picks in the comments [or on Twitter]. I’ll also give you a score prediction each week because, you know, it’s what I do.
Let’s hope the Vols show out tomorrow. Let’s tell you how they can.
Get in Grier’s grill
It’s no secret what West Virginia wants to do. Head coach Dana Holgorsen’s M-O throughout his career as an offensive coordinator and head coach has been to advance the ball vertically through the air. Now, he may just have the best weapon he’s ever had under center in senior quarterback Will Grier.
The Vols know all about Grier, who shredded UT and gouged us in the heart for good measure the last time we saw him at the helm of the Florida Gators when he completed a 4th-and-forever fourth-quarter pass to beat Tennessee in 2015. He has so many weapons and UT has so much youth in the secondary that if the Vols can’t find a way to get pressure on him, it’s going to be a long afternoon.
That’s a tall order for the team that was next-to-last in the SEC with just 22 sacks and 61 tackles for a loss a season ago. There are no “new” weapons for the Vols on the edge, really, unless JUCO transfer Jordan Allen can find his way in the backfield. Instead, UT is mostly relying on scheme changes and the fact that they now have defensive coaching. Can defensive-minded head coach Jeremy Pruitt, coordinator Kevin Sherrer and renowned assistants Chris Rumph and Tracy Rocker manufacture ways for the front seven to get to the quarterback? If not, Grier will have a field day.
Much of camp talk focused on the resurrection of the careers of Jonathan Kongbo, Darrell Taylor, and Kyle Phillips as well as the emergence of players like Quart’e Sapp and even JUCO defensive lineman Emmit Gooden. The Vols must manufacture ways to get to the quarterback.
Grab some game-changers
Last year’s Tennessee defense was atrocious. And before you point to the “strong” pass defense numbers remember that nobody threw the ball against the Vols because they could run it so effectively. When teams needed to pass to win (see Mizzou and Vanderbilt) they did with ease.
That – like the quarterback pressure – must change Saturday.
A season ago, UT was 10th in the SEC in turnover margin, last in the league with a paltry five interceptions and 11th in total takeaways. Again, the Vols are hanging their hats on actual – GASP! – defensive coaching to turn that around. Anybody would be an upgrade over former coordinator Bob Shoop, especially with the handcuffs he seemed to have under the Butch Jones regime.
But, unlike the pass rush, the Vols actually have some new weapons in the secondary. It looks like talented true freshman Alontae Taylor earned a starting spot opposite junior Baylen Buchanan, who hopes to have a career resurgence after a year wandering in ineptitude and obscurity. But other freshmen like Bryce Thompson and Trevon Flowers will play a lot, and their athleticism should upgrade the talent level on the back level.
Throw in a seasoned Nigel Warrior, and the Vols have the chance to be much better, or at least a ton more athletic, in the defensive backfield. They need to do a better job defending the ball, getting their hands on passes and generating turnovers that can flip the field in a hurry. This feels like a game where they’ll be a lot of points scored, so the Vols need extra possessions to win it.
Jump the ‘Eers
The Mountaineers are nearly a double-digit favorite against the Vols, and they can score so quickly that you normally don’t feel like a deficit is a big deal. But this team was just 7-6 a season ago, and their defense (at least on paper) isn’t that good. So, if UT can get a couple of those defensive stops early that we’ve already discussed and put up a couple of quick scores, it may be a big deal.
The reasoning isn’t because Grier will struggle to bring them back. Instead, if the Vols get off to a hot scoring start, they’ll begin to believe. That’s the quickest way to put a forgettable 4-8 2017 behind them. Every single pundit predicting a West Virginia blowout win is looking at the team from a year ago.
This isn’t that team.
The Vols may not be world-beaters yet, but there is a feeling around the complex that this team has improved a lot, and there is a belief that they’re being slept on a bit. OK, go prove it. I’ve said it once this week, but WVU isn’t a powerhouse. This is a good team that has so many offensive weapons that the Vols must play a very good game to win.
So, go play a very good game. Right?
The time for excuses is over. You’ve not heard any from Pruitt, and you won’t hear any from the Vols. They’ve got to go out there with a blank slate and play with their eyes forward. If they do that, they’ll be fine.
When we’re talking about fresh starts, nobody needs one more than Tennessee’s (expected) starting quarterback. The rising redshirt sophomore struggled in his first action a season ago after coming off the bench for maligned Quinten Dormady, who is now a backup at Houston.
But Guarantano, once upon a time, was the nation’s top-ranked dual-threat quarterback, expected to be the program savior and heir to Joshua Dobbs behind center. He was going to be the signal-caller who took UT from the mid-tier level Jones got them to to an upper-echelon program.
That got lost in the shambles of ’17.
Now, we’re hoping the New Jersey native can break out of the shell that he was last season and re-realize his massive potential. This strong-armed kid can make all the passes and elude pressure with his feet. But he’s also prone to hang onto the ball for too long, take unnecessary sacks and struggle with his timing. That’s why he’s not seized the job from graduate transfer quarterback transfer Keller Chryst and run with it.
This is likely going to be Guarantano’s job, and the Vols need for him to be better than serviceable. Serviceable won’t cut it with the players UT has around him. He needs to be steady in this game and develop until the Florida game. If he gets on a roll early, he may recapture some of that swagger he had when Bleacher Report did a Times Square commitment video for him back during his senior season of high school.
One of the most refreshing stories of fall camp has been just how many good reports about the offensive line there has been since Will Friend took over the unit. That position was a nightmare a season ago, along with most everything else. But when you look at how the new staff gave that group a facelift, it’s really remarkable.
The best thing for the Vols is star sophomore Trey Smith – who missed the entire spring dealing with blood clots – is healthy and looks like the leader of the unit now that he’s practicing at left tackle. JUCO transfer Jahmir Johnson earned one of the guard spots, and Alabama center transfer Brandon Kennedy will start in the middle for UT. Right now, it looks like Ryan Johnson and Drew Richmond will be at the other two O-line spots, but there are also reinforcements.
True freshman Jerome Carvin looks like an emerging force at guard, and redshirt freshman K’Rojhn Calbert is perhaps the most athletic player in the group. Riley Locklear is steady and should play, and Marcus Tatum is also not out of the mix at one of the tackle spots. If Chance Hall can come back from his major knee problems (and he’s expected to help this year) the Vols not only have more depth but talent.
But how good will that unit be at the start of the season? They must be very good if the Vols are going to beat the Mountaineers. To win this game, UT needs to run the football effectively, control clock, sustain drives and punch the ball in the end zone. Grier can’t hurt you watching from the sidelines.
So, if the Vols can control the game with their will imposed up front. This is going to be a different game and one UT can win.
I’m a chicken.
I’ve gone back and forth all week on this one, and while I want to allow myself to believe the Vols will win, I’ve been burned too much lately. Call it Battered Butch Syndrome.
I believe the Vols absolutely CAN win this game. I know it’s a huge opportunity for this program under the early regime of Pruitt, and I’ve written as much this week. I also as of now believe this team is going to beat the Gators. But I just think an experienced quarterback and an incredible stable of receivers is going to be too much for a Vols team that struggled to get any pressure or create turnovers a season ago.
I know, I know: I’m looking at last year’s team, too. But how much better will they be? We just don’t know anything at all. That could be an advantage for Pruitt, but it’s a disadvantage in picking games. If UT can control the clock and Guarantano can limit mistakes, the Vols can post points.
But they’ll fall just short. UT will cover, but will start the season 0-1.
Prediction: West Virginia 31, Tennessee 27
Now, onto the locks. We’ll close quickly…take these to the BANK! Or, you know, don’t.
- Ole Miss +2.5 over Texas Tech: There could be a whooooooole lotta points scored in this game, but Texas Tech has proved it can’t hang with more talented teams. The Rebels have a ton of talent, led by quarterback Jordan Ta’amu and the best receiving corps in the SEC featuring A.J. Brown. I like the Dixie Rebels to get a big win in Houston to open the season. Take the dogs.
- South Carolina -29.5 over Coastal Carolina: I normally am a sucker for lines that look too good to be true, and they burn me. This is one of those. The Gamecocks play the Sun Belt’s Chanticleers in the opener, and this was a 3-9 team a year ago. It’s not really USCe’s thing to blow teams out, but Will Muschamp’s team has Jake Bentley and a few receiving weapons who’ll be too much. This will be something like a 45-14 win.
- Auburn -2.5 over Washington: I got no words for this line. Again, I just don’t believe the Huskies can come across the country and play what will virtually be a home game for a stout Tigers team and win. Washington’s best win a year ago was Utah. Auburn is too big and strong on defense and will win a slugfest. I like them to get by by at least a touchdown.
- Kentucky – Central Michigan under 49: These two teams have decent defenses, but the biggest factor here is both have new quarterbacks. The Wildcats have JUCO transfer Terry Wilson, and CMU will go with Tony Poljan, who played some at receiver a year ago and only has 21 career passes for the Chippewas. That’s a perfect concoction for a snorefest. Kentucky will win something like 27-10.
- Michigan PICK over Notre Dame: Not buying the Fighting Irish. Even though they’re at home, the Wolverines are a dark-horse national championship contender if Ole Miss transfer quarterback Shea Patterson can live up to his potential. I think he can.
- Alabama -24.5 over Louisville: Last year, the Cardinals couldn’t stop anybody, and Lamar Jackson made a few of those games at least respectable. There’s no Jackson anymore, and this has the potential to be the best offense of the Saban era in Tuscaloosa. Tide rolls.
- Arizona -11.5 over BYU: This is my favorite line of the week. I can’t wait to see what Kevin Sumlin does with Khalil Tate. The Cougars don’t have an answer for a weapon like him. Cats cruise.
Give us your picks!