By Jimmy Hyams
Tennessee rose from the ashes of a 1-4 start to win the Gator Bowl and finish 8-5.
Considering the player development and the young talent on the Vols’ roster, the future certainly looks bright.
The Vols should be strong at running back, offensive line, defensive line, linebacker and in the secondary. The concerns: wide receiver and tight end.
Then the biggest concern: quarterback.
Rising senior Jarrett Guarantano had some special moments this past season. He threw for over 400 yards against Missouri. He came off the bench to help UT beat Mississippi State, South Carolina and Kentucky. He also played well the last two drives against Indiana.
But he also had some subpar moments. He was up and down on the field, and in and out of the lineup. He was a starter, then got benched, then played well in relief, then started again, but was benched again for a series in the bowl game.
For Tennessee to take the next step under coach Jeremy Pruitt, the Vols have to get better quarterback play. At least six SEC teams were better at quarterback than Tennessee.
Guarantano was too inconsistent to bet he’s the guy that can get the Vols to the next level.
Will he find that consistency in his fifth season?
Will he jive with offensive coordinator Jim Chaney?
Will he get beat out in the spring by a freshman quarterback or someone else?
Will he return to UT if he loses the job in the spring?
I don’t know the answers to those questions.
But I do know UT better get better quarterback play or winning more than eight games next year is a pipe dream.
Tennessee was one of eight SEC teams to win at least eight games this past season – and the Vols might have the biggest question mark in 2020 of those eight teams, if Jamie Newman plays as well at Georgia as he did at Wake Forest.
Guarantano completed less than 60% of his passes for 2,158 yards with 16 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Brian Maurer, who made five starts (if you don’t count Jauan Jennings starting against South Carolina in the wildcat), hit just 46.7% of his passes for 541 yards with two scores and five interceptions. He’s more mobile than Guarantano, but has a tendency to throw into double coverage.
As a team Tennessee threw for 2,878 yards with 19 TDs, 13 picks, and a 132.9 rating – sixth in the SEC. UT’s 19 TD passes tied for seventh.
Tagvoialoa had the best pass efficiency rating among SEC quarterbacks but he didn’t quality nationally because he played in just nine games.
Burrow officially led the nation. Florida’s Kyle Trask was 15th, Guarantano 42nd, Georgia’s Jake Fromm 51st and Missouri’s Kelly Bryant 54th.
If you don’t think quarterback play is important, look at the offensive drop-off from 2018 to 2019 at Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Missouri.
And look at the surge by LSU with a Heisman Trophy winner pulling the trigger.
Here’s a look at the quarterback production of the other seven SEC teams that won at least eight games in the 2019 season.
Tua Tagovailoa completed 180 of 252 (71.4%) for 2,840 yards with 33 touchdowns and only three interceptions. His rating: 206.9, which ranked among the nation’s top five.
Mac Jones was 97 of 141 (68.8%) for 1,503 yards with 14 TDs, three picks and a 186.8 rating. He also helped Bama score 45 points in a loss to Auburn. Alabama’s team total: 4,449 yards, 49 touchdowns, six picks.
Bo Nix was 217 of 377 (57.6%) for 2,542 yards, 16 TDs, six 6 picks. Rating: 125.0. He also rushed for 313 yards and seven scores. Auburn’s team total: 2,697 yards, 20 TDs, six picks, 128.3 rating.
Kyle Trask was 237 of 354 (66.9%) for 2,941 yards, 25 TDs, seven picks. Rating: 156.1. Team totals: 3,910 yards, 33 TDs, 10 picks. 157.2 rating.
Jake Fromm was 234 of 385 (60.8%) for 2,860 yards, 24 TDs, five picks, 141.2 rating. Team totals: 3,122 yards, 26 TDs, six picks, 142.4 rating.
Lynn Bowden was 35-74 (47.3%) for 403 yards, three TDs, three picks, 98.3 rating. But Bowden ran an option attack when he took over and set an SEC QB rushing record with 1,468 yards and 13 TDs. Team totals passing: 1,478 yards, nine TDs, eight picks, 103.4 rating.
Joe Burrow was 402 of 527 (77.6%) for 5,771 yards, 60 TDs, six picks, 202.0 rating. He also ran for five touchdowns. Team totals: 6,024 yards, 61 TDs, seven picks. As a junior, Burrow was 219 of 379 for 2,984 yards passing, 399 rushing, 16 TD passes, five picks.
Kellen Mond was 258 of 419 (61.6%) for 2,897 yards, 20 TDs, nine picks, 131.1 rating. He also rushed for 500 yards and eight scores. Team totals: 3,060 yards, 22 TDs, 10 picks, 128.9 rating.