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2019 Season Opponents Preview: Tennessee Volunteers

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The struggle against history, expectations, and the rest of the SEC

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Tennessee
GOOD BOY IN A COAT
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Tennessee Volunteers

Last Season: 5-7 (2-6)

NCAA Football: Missouri at Tennessee
“It’s like in that moment the whole universe existed just to bring us together.”
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Head Coach: Jeremy Pruitt – 2nd year (former Alabama DC)

Overall Record: 5-7 (2-6)

School Record: 5-7 (2-6)

Offensive Coordinator: Jim Chaney – 1st year (former Georgia OC)

Defensive Coordinator: Derrick Ansley – 1st year (former Oakland Raiders DBs coach)

Last Game Against Mizzou: 2018 at Neyland Stadium, lost 50-17

This Year: at Faurot Field – Columbia, MO – November 23rd, TBD

Projected Overall S&P+ Rank: 21st

Projected Offensive S&P+ Rank: 13th

Projected Defensive S&P+ Rank: 49th

Returning Production: 83% – 91% Offense, 76% Defense (2nd in the nation)

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Tennessee
Jarrett Guarantano
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Offensive Players to Watch

-Jarrett Guarantano – QB – JR: 153-246 (62.2%)/1,907 yards/12 TDs/3 INTs/22 sacks/6.5 ypa

-18 rushes/71 yards/0 TDs/3.94 ypc/44.4% OPP rate/0 fumbles

-Tim Jordan – RB – JR: 132 rushes/522 yards/3 TDs/3.95 ypc/44.7% OPP rate/0 fumbles

-17 targets/12 catches (70.6%)/116 yards/0 TDs/9.7 ypc/6.8 ypt/6% tr

-Marquez Callaway – WR – SR: 65 targets/37 catches (56.9%)/592 yards/2 TDs/16 ypc/9.1 ypt/22.8% tr

NCAA Football: Kentucky at Tennessee
There are over 200 pictures of Nigel Warrior and all of them are him just destroying some dude
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

Defensive Players to Watch

-Emmit Gooden – DT – SR: 25 tackles/17 solo/7 TFLs/1 sack/0 INTs/0 PBUs/0 FFs/28% HAVOC

-Daniel Bituli – MLB – SR: 59 tackles/39 solo/6.5 TFLs/1 sack/0 INTs/1 PBU/0 FFs/12.7% HAVOC

-Nigel Warrior – S – SR: 51 tackles/40 solo/1 TFL/0 sacks/0 INTs/1 PBU/0 FFs/3.9% HAVOC

Preview

The state of Tennessee is not represented by Tennessee football fans. The University of Tennessee is not represented by Tennessee football fans. Hell, even the Tennessee fan base proper is not represented by Tennessee football fans. It almost comes across as a boogeyman— someone clinging to their orange and white binky as they furiously type out a War and Peace-length diatribe filled with Da Vinci Code levels of inaccuracies and conspiracies about how this— THIS is the year that the Volunteers are going to wreck the East and win the SEC. The same thing they’ve written every year since 1999. They insert the Vols into any story about any SEC team. They tut-tut any player in the NFL who happened to be on a team that lost to the Vols one time in their college career. They scream and pout if their annual matchup against Alabama is discussed as being removed and then claim their schedule is unfair. And you know what? I don’t blame them at all. They just want to recapture that magic, man. For years Tennessee was a prestige program, winning conference titles and National Championships and bringing in the best to defeat the rest. But as much as one desperately wants to get back to the ways that made them great, you also need to make sure you’re taking a healthy dose of reality, understanding the shifts in the landscape and adapting to make sure you capitalize in the modern era.

For example, let’s randomly look at three teams, each of which has won multiple National Championships…

Team A:

-10th in all-time wins (838)

-6 National Championships

-16 Conference Titles

-52 Bowl Games

-582 weeks in the AP Poll

-19 weeks at #1

-134-95, 58.5%-win percentage, 4 Division Titles, 12 bowl games since 2000

Team B:

-5th in all time wins (897)

-5 National Championships

-46 Conference Titles

-53 Bowl Games

-728 weeks in the AP Poll

-70 weeks at #1

-154-91, 62.8%-win percentage, 7 Division Titles, 15 bowl games since 2000

Team C:

-20th in all time wins (724)

-9 National Championships

-2 Conference Titles

-34 Bowl Games

-297 weeks in the AP Poll

-21 weeks at #1

-135-105, 56.25%-win percentage, 2 Conference Titles, 1 Division Title, 15 bowl games since 2000

Can you figure out which team is which?

I’ll give you a second.

And another one.

Okay! Here’s the answers:

Team A is Tennessee. Team B is Nebraska. Team C is Pittsburgh.

When Mizzou made the jump to the SEC, I’m sure I was among the many who viewed Tennessee as the Nebraska of the SEC*. And, well... I guess since the turn of the century, Nebraska has actually had more success than Tennessee has and the Vols are more like the Pitt of the SEC.

Sorry, Vols fans :(

*for the record: Oklahoma=Alabama, Oklahoma State=Auburn, Texas=Florida, Kansas=Kentucky, Baylor=Vanderbilt, Iowa State=Mississippi State

Part of the malaise has been the coaching hires Tennessee has made. Phillip Fulmer was a tremendous coach, winning both the SEC and a national championship, but they fired him after his second-ever losing season (which occurred 3 years after his first) and that’s when the regression really hit. Lane Kiffin lasted a year before bolting to USC. Derek Dooley, our fearless offensive coordinator, was in over his head, and despite his excellent orange pants, never finished with a winning record. Butch Jones, for all of his recruiting bravado, could never figure out how to effectively use the pieces he acquired and was fired after Missouri put 50 on the Vols (the first time!). That led to the most slapstick coaching search of all time where they landed on their 40th choice, former Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.

Given the state of disarray in Knoxville and the fact that Pruitt was a first time head coach, there was some implied “Year Zero” culture rebuilding around the program, and to be sure that was absolutely case: both offensive and defensive lines were horrible. The only stat either line had above the 100s was the defense’s “rushing yards allowed on passing downs”, at 78th (yuck). They were one of the worst rushing teams on offense, couldn’t stop the pass on defense, and continually let you gain 3-4 yards per play while giving up some of the worst points per scoring opportunity in the country (97th). Now, the other stat to look at there is that sparkling number two next to returning production. That’s right. Pruitt played a ton of sophomores and juniors who are now juniors and seniors while bringing in the 12th best recruiting class of 2019 (and 20th best of 2018) to complement the 83% of production that’s returning. The youth movement brought a rollercoaster of ups (beating #21 Auburn, beating #12 Kentucky) and downs (getting shellacked by Missouri and Vanderbilt by a combined score of 88-30), but they still finished 5-7 on the year. They also brought in one of my favorite offensive coordinators in Jim Chaney (late of Georgia) and Derrick Ansley from the NFL, a former Saban disciple who is familiar with Pruitt’s system. That’s certainly an upgrade in staff from last year, and with so many returning pieces there’s potential to break through with a winning season.

The 38th ranked Volunteer offense was helmed by Jarrett Guarantano who - truthfully - gave all that he could last year. Running backs Tim Jordan and Ty Chandler barely provided 1,100 yards on the ground combined, and so Guarantano basically had to throw the Vols to win. He was able to do so in a one-dimensional attack no less while completing over 62% of his passes. What’s better is that 8 of the top 9 receivers return and they’re all upperclassmen. If Chaney does what he usually does, he’ll have this offense humming by the middle of the year. The offensive line does lose two starters, but returns six guys with starting experience, half of them blue chips, and all but one of them juniors. If taking your lumps as a youth leads to improved performance as an upperclassman, then this offense should make a solid improvement this year.

For all of his “grrrr defense first” Saban-ness, Pruitt’s first defense was an abysmal 72nd; they were good at limiting explosive plays but that didn’t matter since they’d let you turn second downs into first downs with aplomb. Again, youth had something to do with that, and despite losing 4 defensive linemen, two linebackers and a safety, they still return 76% of last year’s defensive production. What that’s worth, from such a weak unit, is yet to be seen. But they do return all-name team captain Nigel Warrior (for what seems like his 9th year of eligibility) at safety, as well their best havoc producers at each level of defense. And, it’s worth mentioning, there’s a lot of young blue chips pushing for playing time at all of these positions. It’s definitely worth going through some more growing pains this year with the highly-touted freshmen when expectations are still manageable, because if Pruitt can replicate the Saban/Smart defense, Tennessee can quickly become another major threat in the East when the recruiting machine REALLY gets rolling.

It’s tough to make any long-term prognostications after seeing one rebuilding year of a first-time head coach. As Missouri fans, we’ve had front row seats to that show before and we know how frustrating it can be. The point is, Tennessee has the history and resources to be a high-tier program and has shown to be that before the 2000s. But conference football is a zero-sum game, and no matter how highly we think of coaches and players and their tactics and recruiting prowess, someone still has to lose games. Tennessee certainly wants - and can - get out of that role, but at who’s loss? Florida? Georgia? South Carolina? Hell, even the Tigers have positive momentum and are trending up. It’s a crowded field and I truthfully hope the Volunteer faithful find some happiness in the future. Just not against us.