Catch up on previous 2020 opponent previews!
Last year I called Tennessee the Pitt of the SEC. I’ll still stand by that.
But to Tennessee and Jeremy Pruitt’s credit, they had substantial improvement in 2019. Pruitt’s insistence on playing a frightening amount of underclassmen in 2018 led to a ton of returning production for 2019 and concluded with a 19-spot jump in SP+, a gigantic leap in defensive SP+, and a 3-game increase in the win column.
Despite being Tennessee’s 40th (or so) choice in their comical coaching search, Pruitt has improved the culture and recruiting to even beyond Butch Jones levels, and has been able to utilize those pieces to effectiveness on the football field. At least that’s the narrative that we’re rolling with right now.
Did Tennessee actually get better? Did they utilize the Barry Odom tactic of beating the ever-loving-crap out of terrible teams and getting destroyed by any team with a pulse? Well, let’s talk about that.
Here’s what Tennessee did in 2019:
Let’s do some schedule break down! Tennessee went 0-3 against ranked teams and 3-5 against teams with winning records. That’s fairly Odom-ish, but let’s dive in a little further! Here’s how Tennessee faired against the SP+ ranked teams:
- 1-25: 1-3
- 26-50: 3-0
- 51-75: 2-1
- 100+: 1-1
Other than the loss against 107th ranked Georgia State, this is all is fairly predictable for a young team in a rebuild. But, honestly, viewing the schedule from a date standpoint tells the actual story:
- August/September/October: 3-5
- November/December: 5-0
A vintage Odoming!
Three of those losses at the beginning of the year were to Top 10 teams (Florida, Georgia, Alabama). Georgia State and BYU are slightly less defensible, but when the calendar turned to November the Vols finally figured things out and went on a tear. They beat four Top 50 teams with two of those on the road, plus the bowl game against a red hot Indiana.
Tennessee was finally competent at the completion of the year and returns 68% of the guys who made that happen. And now they add the 10th best recruiting class in the nation. Things are looking good at Rocky Top.
Head Coach: Jeremy Pruitt - 3rd Year - 13-12 (7-9)
For a guy who doesn’t know what asparagus is, Pruitt has done well for himself. He got his start in the high school ranks (something I encourage all coaches to do...gives you great experience in creativity and maximizing limited resources) before joining Saban’s Alabama staff as Director of Player Development. In that position he got first hand exposure to the Saban method of recruiting and development, the key aspect that’s allowed his teams to find large successes in his career. Pruitt then meandered to the 2013 Florida State National Champs as defensive coordinator, turned that into a DC gig at Georgia, then went back to Alabama and earned another National Championship before becoming Tennessee’s head man. He’s been coaching in the southeast and the state of Alabama for most of his career and has an excellent knowledge of the recruiting hotbeds and defensive strategies that are going to work. He certainly wasn’t the first choice in Knoxville but, so far it looks like it’s paying off.
Jim Chaney - Offensive Coordinator: I am an unabashed fan of Jim Chaney. The dude is an offensive wizard, able to walk into any bad situation, identify what’s going to work with the pieces he has, and make immediate improvements. He got his first start with Joe Tiller at Purdue, utilizing the spread with Drew Brees to set offensive records with the Boilermakers. After a stint with the St. Louis Rams, he joined Lane Kiffin’s Tennessee team, bringing an almost air-raid style to the Volunteers, and stuck around when our esteemed former-OC Derek Dooley took over. Once Dooley was fired, he elevated woeful Arkansas and Pitt offenses with balanced offensive attacks before helming Georgia’s run first-second-and-third offenses during the Jake Fromm era. And now he’s back at Tennessee! He’s never had an offense ranked worse than 75th and has had five Top 30 offenses— three of which were Top 10. Jim Chaney is awesome and I’m sad he doesn’t work for Mizzou.
Derrick Ansley - Defensive Coordinator: Last year was Ansley’s first year as a defensive coordinator and he did pretty well! Granted, Pruitt is the real DC at Tennessee, Ansley mostly runs practices and handles game day, but still it could have gone poorly and it didn’t. If you want a reason to dislike the dude, he was a starting linebacker on the 2004 Troy team that upset Missouri. So that’s cool.
Jimmy Brumbaugh - Co-Defensive Coordinator
Chris Weinke - Quarterbacks: Fun fact for you younger college football fans... Weinke was the top high school quarterback prospect for the 1990 class and signed with Florida State. However, he was also an excellent baseball player and was drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays. Weinke spent four days on FSU’s campus then decided to play baseball professionally while FSU coach Bobby Bowden told him he’d keep a scholarship open for whenever he wanted to return. Seven years later, at age 25, Weinke called baseball quits and rejoined the Seminoles as a freshman quarterback. Four years later he became the oldest Heisman Trophy winner ever and lead FSU to a National Championship.
Jay Graham - Running Backs
Tee Martin - Wide Receivers: USC’s former offensive coordinator, Martin was the last quarterback to win a National Championship at Tennessee, taking Peyton Manning’s offense and winning it all the year after Manning joined the Colts.
Joe Osovet - Tight Ends
Will Friend - Offensive Line
Shelton Felton - Outside Linebackers
Brian Niedermeyer - Inside Linebackers
As previously mentioned, OC Jim Chaney is a wizard of offensive improvement, which means he needs to take over a crappy offense and work through a year of growing pains before taking off. And, wow, there were some outright growing pains last year, punctuated by their 73rd ranking in offensive SP+. The offense was unable to perform better than the 60th percentile in 8 of their 12 games, only eclipsing 80% against lowly Vanderbilt. The biggest reason for that was a running game that ranked 98th in the nation: their top three running backs barely eclipsed 1,500 yards on the ground and ranked 76th or worse in every rushing category - worse than 100th in success rate, efficiency, and explosiveness! But the Tennessee passing game was awesome, ranking 26th overall thanks to the heroic efforts of Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway, and Josh Palmer. Even with two of those three receivers gone Tennessee still returns 68% of last year’s production but there’s a high chance the strengths and weaknesses flip. In addition, an offense that relies so heavily on explosive plays like Tennessee tends to crash pretty hard over time if they are unable to find any sort of efficiency.
Quarterback - Jarrett Guarantano - Redshirt Senior
Jarrett Guarantano is fine. That might be damning praise, but that’s basically what he is. His completion percentage is right at 60% for his career despite dipping to 59% last year. He improved his touchdowns, reduced his interceptions, and took fewer sacks last year than previous years, and even improved his yards per attempt in 2019. But he’s not very mobile - 34 rushes for 148 yards for the year - and his efficiency and success rates while passing aren’t very good (55th and 76th, respectively). His lone strength is explosive pass plays which - yes - is partly due to his ability to throw the deep ball, but also on his receivers to turn the short stuff into long gains. And in this instance, it was mostly thanks to his receivers taking nothing and turning it into something. Barring injury, Guarantano will - and should - be the starter, but they need to start finding his replacement soon since he graduates this year. A more mobile threat with a little more accuracy would be a good start.
Running Back - Ty Chandler - Senior
Chandler, Tim Jordan, and Eric Gray combine for 340 carries for 1,612 yards and 8 touchdowns. And Gray, a freshman, was the better running back of the three despite the junior-level experience of both Chandler and Jordan! All three return for 2020, which bodes well for continuity, but the real issue is they’re going to need a better performance from their offensive line. The Vols ranked 79th in opportunity rate (the percentage of plays where the line gets the runner five yards), 86th in power success rate (getting short yardage in 3rd/4th/goal to go situations), and 76th in stuff rate (percentage of runs stopped before crossing the line of scrimmage). Part of that is on the backs but those measurements show an overwhelming fault on the o-line. Having the Vols return lots of experience in both units tends to mean that the running game should be at least a little better than 98th this year.
Wide Receiver - Josh Palmer - Senior
Palmer absolutely destroyed Mizzou last year, catching 6 of 7 passes for 124 yards. He’s back but the dynamic trio of Palmer, Jennings, and Callaway are missing the last two, as well as safety blanket tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson. Outside of Palmer’s 457 yards and a touchdown, Tennessee returns...ummm....8 catches for 164 yards and a touchdown. The lack of experience on the roster lead Pruitt to hit the transfer portal hard for receivers, nabbing USC’s Velus Jones, Nebraska’s Miles Jones (not related), and Appalachian State’s Braden Collins. They’re also bringing in three blue chip receivers from the 2020 class in Malachi Wideman, Jimmy Calloway, and Jalin Hyatt. Six new receivers means that someone will step up, and Chaney should be able to quickly figure out how to use these guys, but there’s a lot of new faces in the receiving corps and experience tends to be the best indicator of success in the passing game.
When a school hires a Saban acolyte they tend to expect dynamic recruiting, lots of talk about “process”, and a stifling defense. Last year’s defense was able to overcome a 72nd ranking from 2018 and jump all the way to 19th last year, powered by dynamic upper-classmen at all three levels. Tennessee’s defense eclipsed the 80th percentile in performance a whopping seven times, three of which were at 90% or higher. They completely erased explosive plays (5th in the country!), forcing teams to take 14ish plays to matriculate down the field. If an opposing offense had a lot of efficiency options the Volunteers were cooked, but the good news is that college offenses are rarely consistently efficient. The Vols return 69% of last year’s production, too, so a 2020 projection of 7th in the country, a.) sounds right, and b.) bodes ill for their opponents.... especially a certain Tiger squad that has one of the worst returning offensive productions in the country :(
Defensive Line - Matthew Butler - Senior
Pruitt runs a base 3-4 defense; just like Saban, just like Kirby Smart, and just like any Saban DC that a school plucks. He didn’t run super deep into the depth chart on the line, but of the 3 positions available, he had a rotation of six guys, three of which were freshmen. Everyone on the line returns, headlined by Butler who lead the line in tackles and sacks. Now-sophomore Greg Emerson is a star in the making - 4 tackles for loss, 2 sacks, 8 havoc plays as a freshman - and they added 3 more blue chip linemen via recruiting as well. A 3-4 defensive line tends to not be all that disruptive but thanks to experience this line should be pretty good in 2020 and thanks to recruiting, downright scary going forward.
Linebacker - Henry To’o To’o - Sophomore
Daniel Bituli was the seasoned stud of the linebacking corps but To’o To’o is the rising star. The freshman logged over 50 tackles, 5 tackles for loss, 10 run stuffs, and was a Freshman All-American. Pruitt didn’t trust most of his linebackers, only rotating in 5 guys regularly, so To’o To’o will have to reliably produce and hope that one of the three incoming blue chip linebackers can carve out some playing time. Junior Kivon Bennett is the most likely to get a crack at the spot opposite To’o To’o, and even though he only managed 20 tackles, 6 of those were for loss with two sacks.
Defensive Back - Theo Jackson - Senior
Nigel Warrior was a force on the field (and a tremendous name to boot) but now he’s a Baltimore Raven so the Volunteer safeties will turn to Jackson to carry the torch. Jackson wasn’t nearly as disruptive against the run (1 tackle for loss, no run stuffs) or the pass (1 interception, 2 passes broken up) but did end up fourth on the team in tackles made. Now-sophomore Jaylen McCollough was way more disruptive and should find himself on the field much more frequently. The Volunteer secondary was super sticky and provided enough coverage for the front seven to get plenty of coverage sacks; that they only lose one guy from their 9-man rotation means they should be just as tenacious in pass defense again this year.
So what does it mean?
We better hope that Oklahoma and Florida beat the hell out of the Volunteers because I don’t see how Missouri wins this one straight up.
Unless Drinkwitz can sprinkle his magical offensive fairy dust on the Tigers and make them competent immediately, Mizzou will find itself in a lot of defensive slugfests, something that Pruitt and the Volunteers are happy to do. The Vols are starting over with their receivers but return their quarterback, top three running backs, and most of their offensive line, as well as damn-near their entire defense. They have experience, an identity, one helluva offensive coordinator, and a excellent defensive mind as a head coach. And this game is in Knoxville. Certainly anything is possible but it’s hard to see a path to stealing a win on the road here.