Silverberg: Vols did it the hard way, but are bowl eligible

Tennessee wide receiver Josh Palmer. PHOTO: WNML staff.

By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg

Tennessee had been in this situation before, even prior to last year. A Volunteer team coming off a win over Kentucky to move to 5-5 with two games remaining with a chance to get to a bowl bid when it didn’t seem likely at an earlier point in the season.

In 2014, the Vols dealt with a tough schedule that included road trips to then-No. 4 Oklahoma, No. 12 Georgia (which finished in the top ten), then-No. 3 Ole Miss and a home game against No. 4 Alabama.

That 2014 season started with a pair of easy non conference wins against Utah State and Arkansas State. The Oklahoma and Georgia games followed with the latter creating a lot of optimism after the Vols gave the Bulldogs a scare in a 35-32 loss in Athens. The Florida game at home was a frustrating defeat to swallow after Tennessee’s offense failed to find the end zone in a 10-9 loss in front of a checkered Neyland.

An easy win against Chattanooga was followed by the Ole Miss and Alabama games. Tennessee was sitting at 3-5 with no Power 5 wins and a road trip to South Carolina looming. Tennessee fans remember what happened next. Josh Hobbs engineered a seemingly improbable comeback to force overtime and the Vols walked out of Williams-Brice Stadium with a 45-42 win. Tennessee whipped Kentucky 50-16 two weeks later to bring themselves to .500 for the first time in a month.

The Vols had chances a week later, but ultimately fell in a one-score game to a Missouri team that went on to win the SEC East. Tennessee held off Vanderbilt in the regular season finale to get to a bowl game for the first time in four years.

Last year the Vols upset a top-15 Kentucky squad to get to 5-5, only to get blown out at home by Missouri and again by Vanderbilt the following week. It was an ending that erased some positive moments, such as the Kentucky win or an upset on the road at Auburn earlier in the year.

Presented with a similar scenario this season, one that seemed unthinkable in September, Tennessee went on the road and won a close, physical game against a Missouri team that was 5-2 all-time against the Vols before Saturday. That changed with Tennessee’s 24-20 win Saturday night.

In two of these three seasons, Tennessee has once gone 5-7, and once gone 6-6.

Now it has a chance to get do one better and close out the season with a pair of wins to get to 7-5.

The bowl bid itself didn’t look like it was on the table when Tennessee started the season 1-4 with losses to Georgia State and BYU at home. Blowout losses to Florida and Georgia didn’t help, but the Vols regrouped to upset Mississippi State and rebounded from a loss at Alabama to put together the program’s first four-game win streak since 2016.

Tennessee will be favored to improve to 7-5 next Saturday with Vanderbilt coming to Knoxville. Prior to the Missouri game, Westgate SuperBook had the Vols as a 20-point favorite over the Commodores. It’s hard to see that line changing much, if at all.

There were highs and lows during Tennessee’s win against Missouri. Jarrett Guarantano throwing for over 400 yards, two touchdowns and no turnovers certainly stands out as a high. Tennessee’s defense kept Missouri running back Larry Roundtree in check and didn’t let Kelly Bryant beat them with his legs very much. The Tigers had 99 yards on 37 carries. Finally Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway and Josh Palmer each topped 100 yards receiving on the night, the first time the Vols have ever had three 100-yard receivers in a single game.

The lows include obstacles Tennessee has overcome before and one that shouldn’t be a problem going forward. Tennessee still needs to improve its punting situation. Paxton Brooks averaged less than 40 yards per punt. The running game is still an issue for the Vols. Tim Jordan had an okay night, but his fumble in the fourth quarter could’ve hurt Tennessee worse that it did. The Vols had 111 yards on 32 carries. Lastly, Brent Cimaglia had two field goals blocked.

The highs outweighed the lows Saturday night and Tennessee came up with its sixth win of the season. It’s been quite a turnaround for a team that was searching for answers after only four games.

With two games left on the schedule thanks to Saturday night’s win, here are some other notes from Tennessee’s successful trip to Columbia.

Jennings is not who Vanderbilt wants to see right now

Jennings was on Tennessee’s roster when the Vols hung 58 points on Vanderbilt during his freshman year, but he didn’t appear in the game. Tennessee has lost the last three meetings in the series since then, meaning Jennings has never beaten Vanderbilt in his career. He missed the rest of the 2017 season after being injured in the opener and only caught two passes in last year’s loss to the Commodores.

That can’t be good for Vanderbilt.

Jennings has seven games this year with five catches or more, four games of 100 or more receiving yards and eight receiving touchdowns to go along with the rushing score he had against UAB.

Consider his ability to pick up yards after the catch, break away from would-be tacklers or make them miss entirely, and Jennings could be due for a monster game against Vanderbilt next Saturday. As much as Jennings has showed how much he loves Tennessee, one would think he’ll be focused solely on ending the skid against his team’s rival from Nashville.

For anyone tracking milestones, Jennings is 114 yards away from a thousand on the year. He now has two games to get there, but it’s certainly on the table for Saturday in Neyland Stadium.

With Jennings and fellow senior Callaway playing their final game in Knoxville next weekend the wide receiving corps will be a tough one to replenish to the same level of production as what we’ve seen this season. However…

…Palmer showed he can be the next No. 1

Maybe the wide receiver spot takes a small step back with Jennings and Callaway leaving, and how can it not? They’re game changing, physical playmakers. But Palmer is getting more attention in the passing game as the Vols continue to have success.

During Tennessee’s four-game winning streak Palmer has 16 catches for 238 yards and one spectacular touchdown catch against Kentucky. He had 12 receptions in Tennessee’s first seven games.

He had six catches for 124 yards against Missouri, both are career highs. He made a pair of catches back-to-back along the sideline right before the end of the first half to help Tennessee add a field goal. His ability to make catches in traffic makes him a solid No. 1 receiver for the Vols next season.

Tennessee executed a two-minute drill in just 38 seconds

Jeremy Pruitt could’ve called a timeout with eight seconds left to take one last shot at the end zone before settling for a field goal, but opted instead to let the clock run down, call the timeout and send Cimaglia out to give Tennessee a seven-point lead at the break.

Missouri punted the football back to Tennessee with 38 seconds left in the second quarter and the ball at Tennessee’s own 24. Pruitt opted to be aggressive, something he hasn’t always chosen to do at times this year, and managed to get points on the board instead of sit on a four-point lead.

Jordan getting a ten-yard run on the drive’s opening play may have had something to do with the decision, but Pruitt trusted Guarantano enough to hit Palmer on back to back throws for 24 and 20 yards to get the ball inside the Missouri 25. Guarantano scrambled for 12 yards on the next play to set up a 27-yard kick.

When Tennessee made an interception late in the first half against Mississippi State to give the Vols the ball back at the Bulldogs’ 37 with a minute remaining Pruitt chose to call three runs and send Cimaglia out for a long 49-yard field goal, which inched over the crossbar.

What a difference a month makes.

Guarantano took it upon himself to help this season get better

The criticism Guarantano received during the first half of the season was certainly warranted. He missed out on several key opportunities for touchdown passes against BYU and his second half interception helped the Cougars rally to beat the Vols in overtime. He struggled to get the offense moving consistently against Florida and missed a wide open Dominick Wood-Anderson on a deep ball. Then there’s the viral-for-the-wrong-reason blunder that happened against Alabama.

It was a nightmare for a quarterback who had undergone a head coaching change and several changes at offensive coordinator since his arrival. With Jim Chaney’s return to Knoxville it felt like this would be the year Guarantano’s play could really be elevated under a defensive-minded head coach.

It didn’t start out that way, but Guarantano owned his mistakes and has helped Tennessee turn this season around. It still has to finish out the year and take care of Vanderbilt before preparing for a bowl game, but 6-5 wasn’t envisioned by hardly anyone outside of Tennessee’s locker room when the first of October rolled around.

Guarantano had not started a game since September before Saturday, but he was easily the most effective quarterback for the Volunteers in each win its had this season.

He replaced an injured Brian Maurer, who had thrown two interceptions, to help the Vols beat Mississippi State with a game-sealing scoring drive capped by a touchdown pass to Tyler Byrd.

He came off the bench in relief of J.T. Shrout to throw for 229 yards and two scores. He left the game with a broken hand after his second touchdown pass to Jennings.

After a slow start by Shrout against UAB, Guarantano came off the bench again and played the majority of the game in a 30-7 win over the Blazers.

He started the second half in Lexington after Maurer was able to muster only a field goal in the first half. Guarantano’s two touchdown passes erased a ten-point deficit at the break as the Vols held on to beat Kentucky 17-13.

And finally there’s Saturday night in Columbia. Guarantano threw for 415 yards, the fourth most in school history, and two touchdown passes as Tennessee became bowl eligible for the first time since 2016.

For a guy who many fans didn’t want to see last the end of the season, it’s difficult to see this turnaround happening without him on the roster.

What’s next?

Tennessee will host Vanderbilt next Saturday at 4 PM in Neyland Stadium. The Commodores have won the last three in the series against Tennessee, but are 3-8 on the year and rank dead last in the SEC in total offense.

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