By Jimmy Hyams
Tennessee started the season with an embarrassing loss to 25-point underdog Georgia State.
The Vols started the season blowing a game to BYU when coaches didn’t call for a prevent defense.
They started the season 1-4 and were given up for dead by many.
So was the quarterback, Jarrett Guarantano.
Man, how things have changed.
Tennessee defeated Missouri 24-20 Saturday night to win its fifth game in six outings and become bowl eligible for the first time since 2015.
And they couldn’t have done it without Guarantano.
The junior from New Jersey looks like a New Man. He completed 23 of 40 passes for 415 yards – the fourth most in school history – and tortured the Tigers by consistently converting on third-and-long. Only Peyton Manning and Tyler Bray have had more passing yards in a game for Tennessee.
“Jarrett played a great game,’’ Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said. “And the receivers did a great job attacking the ball.’’
For the first half of this season, Guarantano was under attack. He stared down receivers, threw into coverage, slid before making a first down, checked to the wrong plays, fired interceptions, then came the Alabama Debacle.
A lesser man would have gone into a shell, might have quit.
Not JG. He apologized to the team after the Alabama faux pas, accepted a demotion, started playing the like a four-star recruit, and put his team in postseason play.
“Jarrett made some really good throws, really good throws,’’ Pruitt said after the Missouri (5-6) win. “He hung in there.
“Jarrett’s a winner. I said it when we went to the other quarterbacks, that he would help win games this year and he’s helped us win five out of the last six.’’
Tennessee (6-5) has beaten each of its last six opponents not named Alabama.
It’s been an impressive turnaround not just for Guarantano, but the coaching staff.
You could blame the coaches for not having the team ready for Georgia State and for not going into a prevent defense late against BYU.
But the staff did a marvelous job keeping the team together after the disappointing 1-4 start, putting players in position to succeed and pushing forward with an optimistic approach.
Guarantano wasn’t the only star on a night when UT scored only its second win at Missouri. His top three receivers made school history by becoming the first trio to each rack up 100 receiving yards.
Josh Palmer had six catches for 124 yards. Marquez Callaway had six catches for 110 yards. Jauan Jennings had five catches for 115 yards, and scored on a 16 yarder by breaking three tackles in a vintage Jennings move.
It didn’t hurt UT that two of Missouri’s top two cornerbacks were hurt.
Guarantano brushed off his performance by saying of his wideouts: “They had a better night catching the ball and they were getting open all night long.’’
Yes they were, thanks to a strange defense employed by Missouri. The Tigers’ defensive backs consistently gave enough cushion for the Vols convert third downs of 8, 18, 9, 5, 6, 8 and 5 yards, and one third-and-21 resulted in a 20-yard gain.
Offensive coordinator Jim Chaney was brilliant in his play calling, picking on cornerback Christian Holmes, who not only was victimized by catches but was guilty of three pass interference calls.
“He calls plays to make us successful,’’ Callaway said.
Remarkably, Tennessee had 10 completions of at least 20 yards and two more of more than 15 yards. And that was against the No. 1 pass defense in the SEC, mind you.
“We have the best receivers in the SEC,’’ Jennings said.
UT outpassed Missouri 415 yards to 181, outgained the Tigers 526 to 280 and might have won by a larger margin of not for some self-inflicted wounds.
The Vols had two field-goal attempts blocked and a late hit led to a Missouri field goal.
“We made a million mistakes out there,’’ Pruitt said. “We’ve just got to play smarter.’’
Guarantano certainly played smart.
“I’m just happy we won the game,’’ Guarantano said. “Glory to God.’’
Teammates were giving glory to Guarantano.
“We’ve always had confidence in Jarrett since the very first game,’’ Palmer said. “He always gives 100 percent every game and every practice.’’
Pruitt said the turning point of the season is when the Vols returned home from a 34-3 pasting to Florida.
“This is what were’ going to do,” Pruitt told the team, “we’re going to find a way to get to a bowl game.
“We’re still a long way from where we want to be, but we’re learning.’’
Tennessee got revenge against a Missouri team that had won two in a row over the Vols by 50-17.
Next up is Vanderbilt, which has won three in a row against the Vols.
“Can’t wait to see ‘em.’’ Jennings said. “Can’t wait to see ‘em. Can not wait to see ‘em.’’