It felt like we were due a close game. We got one. Then Tennessee did a bunch of things you can’t do to win close games: almost twice as many penalty yards, dropped a snap on a punt, fumbled in their own territory in the final ten minutes, etc. The Vols felt like they were in control most of the night against BYU and lost. Kentucky, from a 17-play opening drive, felt like they were in control most of the night.
Those 17 plays were the first of 71 for Kentucky. Tennessee ran 46, leaving them at 621 on the year, the fewest for any team that’s played 10 games this season (stats via SportSource Analytics). That part hasn’t changed from last season, when the Vols ran fewer plays than any team in college football.
Beating Kentucky, as it turns out, hasn’t changed either.
The how was much, much different. Kentucky rolled into Knoxville last season ranked 12th, and rolled back up I-75 on the wrong end of a beat down: the Vols averaged 6.86 yards per play and held Kentucky to 3.59, a difference of 3.27 representing the biggest gap between Tennessee and a power five foe since Georgia in 2009.
Different team, different venue, much closer game. But in the end, the Vols are back at the same result: 5-5, two games to play. Last season those five wins came via a pair of ranked upsets, but the year ended with a pair of crushing defeats. This time the five wins have come via Chattanooga and a hot streak: the Vols have now covered the spread five weeks in a row for only the second time since 1998.
That list, via the closing lines at covers.com:
- 2019: Mississippi State, Alabama, South Carolina, UAB, Kentucky and counting…
- 2010: Tyler Bray’s emergence in the last five games of the regular season
- 1998: The first five games (and just missed the first seven, failing to cover against Alabama by a single point; the 98 Vols ultimately went 9-4 against the spread)
- 1992: The first five games before losing straight up to Arkansas as a 22-point favorite
- 1990: Possible asterisk here, as covers.com has no line for the 55-7 win over Pacific in week two; otherwise the Vols covered the first five games before the 9-6 debacle against Alabama, still the worst non-2001-LSU loss of my lifetime
- A wild sequence in the mid-80’s: the Vols covered the last four games of 1985, including the 35-7 win over Miami in the Sugar Bowl as a 7.5-point underdog. Then the Vols failed to cover in the first six weeks of 1986 in a 2-4 start. Then they covered the last five weeks of the regular season and in the bowl against Minnesota in a 5-1 finish. And then they covered the first five weeks of 1987, making it 11 in a row between seasons.
So while beating Kentucky is ordinary, if things overall feel fairly unprecedented, it’s because they kind of are.
A 7-5 finish remains firmly on the table, the preseason Vegas prediction within reach even after losing to Georgia State and BYU. If the Vols get there and win the bowl game – both of ESPN’s projections have the Vols in the Gator Bowl this morning, while Banner Society puts the Vols in Charlotte against UNC but leaves a tantalizing match-up in the realm of possibility by putting Michigan in the Gator Bowl – an 8-5 finish would still be the third-best season since 2007. The kind of marquee win Tennessee earned last year but failed to make last isn’t available the next two weeks. But win both of them, and it might be there for this team in January.
If there’s a full-circle narrative to this team, it’s fitting that Jarrett Guarantano should be the starting quarterback when the Vols go to Missouri in two weeks.
Improbably, Guarantano is back in the conversation for Peyton Manning’s career completion percentage mark. After a 7-of-8 performance against the Cats, Guarantano is at 62.1%. Manning finished at 62.5%. Impossibly, “I hope he never plays another down,” has morphed into, “Hey, he could come back next year!”
He’s part of an offense featuring this:
Catches Per Game – Tennessee 2010-19
- Justin Hunter 2012 – 6.1
- Gerald Jones 2010 – 5.5
- Jauan Jennings 2019 – 5.0
And, at the same time, this:
Yards Per Catch with 20+ Catches – National Leaders
- Geraud Sanders, Air Force
- Tarique Milton, Iowa State
- CeeDee Lamb, Oklahoma
- Rashod Bateman, Minnesota
- Marquez Callaway, Tennessee
Tennessee is close. On a lot of levels. To bowl eligibility. To reasserting dominance over the second tier of the SEC East. To certifiable progress in the year it looked least possible.
Close was ultimately a bad word for Butch Jones; his first two teams, digging out of a similar hole, played nine one-possession games. The Vols went 4-5. Pruitt’s teams just played their fifth one-possession game, and are 2-3. The best way to win them remains not to play them, and so far in this streak the Vols had handled their business without drama in victory, and with the right kind of theatrics in Tuscaloosa.
But when a close game seemed unavoidable from the opening minutes last night, and the Vols failed to help themselves…they still won. On the road in the SEC. Thanks, in large part, to an incredible goal line stand that had to warm Jeremy Pruitt’s heart.
Pruitt and the Vols made it this far last year. We’re close to an especially surprising something more.