With so much to play for on Saturday, Tennessee’s game against Missouri was a colossal thud.
It should have been the most embarrassed the Volunteers felt all year, and, if they didn’t, something is severely wrong with the program. Mizzou waltzed into Neyland Stadium with former UT head coach Derek Dooley as its offensive coordinator and walked out with a 50-17 annihilation of the Vols.
A team that needed a single win for bowl eligibility will have to wait another week. If they play anything against Vanderbilt like they did against Missouri, they’ll have to wait another year (or more). Yes, with tons of star recruits in town and with so much to play for, the Vols were flatter and forgettable as they’ve been since the Florida loss.
The two setbacks were very similar, too. If anything, the one Saturday was worse. But the true nature of the “Sunday Best” column is to find something positive to talk about. Honestly, we’ll get to a couple of those real good things later, but the best thing I can say about this one is that it’s over.
This was the first time in four trips that my 8-year-old boy has gone to Neyland and come away with a loss, and as he declared afterward, “Well, at least I had fun.”
That makes one of us, kid. But I guess that qualifies for something worth chalking up as a positive for the day; Lord knows I need something good to make me feel better…
But first, the failures…
The offensive line is awful. We all know that, and though we maybe had better vibes after last weekend’s win over Kentucky, it was more of the same against Mizzou. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano was concussed early in the first quarter, yielding to Keller Chryst for the rest of the day. Few running lanes opened up the rest of the day making UT one-dimensional (and even that dimension wasn’t very good), and the Vols failed to sustain drives for the remainder of the game.
On the other side of the ball, this was — far and away, considering the level of competition — the worst UT’s defense has played all season, too, which disappointed me more than anything. I knew the offensive line sucked. I expected coach Jeremy Pruitt to have his boys on the defensive side of the ball ready to play, and that never was the case.
Needing to pressure Drew Lock to have a chance to win, Tennessee failed to do it hardly ever, and the senior Tigers quarterback dissected the Vols like a frog in 8th-grade science class. He was brilliant, and I’m glad he’s gone. You should be, too, because the Vols had no answer for him. Want to know what should make you feel worse? It could have been even more gruesome; the Tigers dropped two guaranteed touchdown passes where they torched UT defensive backs.
Alontae Taylor looked human all day with his worst performance of his freshman year, and the safeties were atrocious, too. Lock made them look like Will Grier did at the beginning of the season.
Well, how about the rush defense? Yeah, it was nonexistent, as well. Missouri completed 50 percent of its third-down conversions, and that had something to do with Lock’s brilliance, sure, but it also didn’t hurt that the Tigers had 227 rushing yards and put itself in manageable second- and third-down situations throughout the game. The Vols didn’t have any answers.
Need a reminder just how small the margin of error is for this UT team? Look no further than two plays that were gargantuan in the final tally. At the end of the first half, Chryst led UT down the field, and the Vols looked like they’d at the very least get a field goal to trail 19-13 at halftime. They may have even made it 19-17 if they could punch it in the end zone. Instead, Chryst and his receiver failed to be on the same page on a pivotal play, and the senior threw a huge interception that was returned deep into UT territory. Mizzou punched it in for a quick score to end the half, and instead of a one-score game, it was a 26-10 halftime advantage.
Tennessee was driving again near midfield in the third quarter when Carlin Fils-aime fumbled, and it was picked up and returned for a Mizzou touchdown that put the game completely out of reach.
So, all that happened. It was brutal. It was disappointing. And it not only was awful for the present, but it sucked for the future, too. Tennessee had a slew of high-profile recruits in town, the Vols had built some momentum with 5-star linebacker Owen Pappoe and 5-star offensive tackle Darnell Wright [neither of which was present Saturday, thank God] and others, and they were all feeling the vibes and watching the improvement of the Vols.
Then Saturday happened.
I’m not saying one game should — or will — influence any of those guys’ decisions. The Vols will still have a good recruiting class and may even lead for both those kids who’ll be massive playmakers and first-year starters. But Saturday didn’t help the selling process. You put your resume on paper, and UT didn’t have enough to get hired pumping gas against the Tigers.
If you want some positive things from Saturday, you’ve got to look hard. Again, my kid had a good time, so there’s that, right? Right?
Also, it showed me two things that are important for team (and fan) continuity next week. No. 1, Guarantano needs to be man against the Commodores and (hopefully) in a bowl game, whether the Vols win or lose in Nashville. He is the best quarterback on the roster, and Chryst struggled at times on Saturday. He just doesn’t give you what JG does, plain and simple. But…
The positive thing about Chryst is the kid CAN be a salvageable option if JG can’t go. The deep-ball game was strong again, and he was able to get passes up to Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings and let those superior talents do the rest. That’s a major positive. Yes, Chryst threw a pair of interceptions and was just 7-of-19 passing, but it wasn’t all his fault. When you’re one-dimensional — and the Vols definitely were on Saturday — defenses don’t have to work as hard.
We, of all teams, should know that. Remember the Kentucky game just last week?
Tennessee can beat Vanderbilt with Chryst at the helm. There’s a better chance for that to happen if Guarantano is healthy. Hopefully, he will be.
But the best thing about Saturday is we don’t have to watch Lock torch us anymore. Man, that got old. Just forget about this one and move on. It’s a one-game season, and if the Vols can’t beat Vanderbilt, they don’t deserve to go to a bowl game, anyway.
Better days are ahead, but this team is imperfect, inconsistent and continues to be about as hot and cold as any in the country. Let’s just hope they’re the former next weekend, or we’ll be watching bowl season from our couches.