By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
Saturday in Athens was certainly a tale of two halves as the Vols saw a 21-17 halftime lead turn into a 44-21 loss after the Bulldogs (3-0) outscored Tennessee 27-0 after the break. After not committing a turnover through the first ten quarters of the season, the Vols (1-2) turned the ball over three times in the second half, leading to 13 Georgia points.
The stat sheet will attribute all three turnovers to fifth-year senior quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, who threw his first interception of the season and was strip-sacked three times, losing two of them. But Guarantano shouldn’t shoulder the entire blame for those.
All three takeaways were forced by pressure from Georgia’s front seven. Guarantano’s interception was a poor decision. He threw off his back foot with the blitz in his face on third down. He should’ve taken the sack. Instead the turnover led to a Georgia field goal. The fumble on the previous drive also led to just a field goal thanks to the play of Tennessee’s defense, which made several big stops to keep the Vols in the ballgame. It’s simply difficult to do so consistently when a team like Georgia is given too many opportunities.
Each turnover—as well as the fumble Tennessee managed to get back—occurred on third down, which is a further testament to Georgia’s defense. The offense was put in adverse situations throughout the second half. The run game gave Tennessee little to work with and the offensive line was outplayed in pass protection, leading to five sacks of Guarantano.
Guarantano needs to have better ball security and his interception was reminiscent of some of his play from last year, but the offensive line needs to share the responsibility there. Even if Guarantano protects the football, takes the sack, scrambles for a short gain, etc. Tennessee is looking at fourth down and punting the football in each of those possessions. Maybe it doesn’t hand Georgia 13 points, but it also doesn’t take points off the board for Tennessee either.
Georgia’s defense was just too much.
And that’s where Tennessee is right now. The Vols are a good football team that took advantage of some key moments in the first half to jump in front of the No. 3 team in the country late in the second quarter. Then its defense made an incredible goal line stand to preserve the lead going into the break. Tennessee may have been gifted a seven-point edge to start the game with Georgia’s fumbled snap into the end zone, but Guarantano threw a pair of strikes where Josh Palmer made some incredible grabs for touchdowns.
The reality is Guarantano is still the best quarterback on Tennessee’s roster. We’ll see in time about Harrison Bailey. J.T. Shrout has been in the program for a couple years and Brian Maurer showed some flashes last season, but there’s not enough to suggest either one is a better option than Guarantano right now. One could argue Tennessee doesn’t beat South Carolina without him.
However, the more blunt reality is Tennessee doesn’t have a game-changing quarterback on its roster, period. Guarantano can elevate his game at times. The 2018 Auburn game garnered Guarantano national recognition. But the 2019 Georgia State and Alabama games garnered national mockery.
Guarantano can win games if he plays a clean game complimentary to a good running game and a strong outing from Tennessee’s defense. Every once in a while he can provide a spark, make some big time throws and lead a game-winning touchdown drive. There’s a gray area between the floor and ceiling, however, and Guarantano often hangs out in those middle stories. The question surrounding Guarantano is if he can take the next step to take over a game and be the best player on the field. On Saturday, the answer was no.
In his senior year alone, Josh Dobbs accounted for 3,781 yards of total offense. In Guarantano’s 2018 and ’19 seasons combined (25 games played), he accounted for 4,025 yards of total offense. During that 2016 campaign, Dobbs accounted for 40 total touchdowns. The same number of touchdowns Guarantano has scored in his entire 37-game career at Tennessee.
And Dobbs did it with a worse offensive line, too.
Jeremy Pruitt is going to believe Guarantano is the guy until there’s a serious reason to believe he isn’t. Tennessee doesn’t have another proven quarterback that can win games in the SEC. Despite Guarantano’s limitations, he still has that above his understudies. Maurer and Shrout could still develop. Bailey could still be the future. But until a real need to make a change occurs, Pruitt’s going to stick with his fifth-year senior, and it’s the right choice to make.
Now to move on to this week’s good, bad and ugly.
The Good: Clemson. In a weekend that featured several upsets, the Tigers kept it academic against Miami. Even with the Hurricanes getting a touchdown off a blocked field goal to end the first half, Clemson still led by 11 at the break and continued to frustrate Miami quarterback D’Eriq King en route to a 42-17 win against the then-No.7 Hurricanes.
Honorable Mention: Georgia. Two top-15 opponents in primetime in back-to-back weeks? Make it two wins (and two covers) for the Bulldogs. Georgia’s defense has shown it’s legitimate after convincing wins over Auburn and Tennessee. Stetson Bennett has acquitted himself well and he’s going to start his third straight primetime game in a No. 2 vs. No. 3 matchup against Alabama on Saturday night.
The Bad: Florida. The Gators offense was cruising through two weeks. Texas A&M’s offense was struggling and its defense looked exposed. Florida took advantage of the latter, but couldn’t stop Kellen Mood or Isaiah Spiller as the Aggies took advantage of a late Florida fumble to stun the Gators in College Station 41-38 to give Jimbo Fisher his biggest win at Texas A&M. Florida has to regroup for LSU this week and hope Alabama bests Georgia for the Gators to keep pace in the SEC East.
Honorable Mention: Ole Miss. If it doesn’t work out for Tom Herman in Austin, Lane Kiffin should take the head coaching job at Texas. This Rebels team would fit right in the Big 12. Explosive offenses that make top-ranked teams look silly and defenses that don’t know how to pressure, cover or tackle. The Rebels’ 63-48 loss to Alabama showed that Kiffin’s offenses are going to do some damage as long as he’s in the SEC, but no fan base or athletic director are going to be okay with scoring 48 points in a game while still losing by double digits.
The Ugly: LSU. I thought LSU would be the most overrated team in the SEC at the beginning of the year, but I didn’t see this coming. LSU won the turnovers battle 3-0 and still gave up 586 yards and 45 points to Mizzou. Oddly enough, Missouri’s defense won the game for it with a goal line stand. The defending national champs are now unranked and could realistically be 2-4 by the time we get to November.
Honorable Mention: SEC officiating. It’s the Fix for Nix (I tried, okay?). Bo Nix’s botched snap while trying to spike the ball went backwards and was incorrectly ruled an incomplete pass. Auburn took advantage and kicked a game-winning field goal to down Arkansas 30-28. The league’s statement regarding the incident is bogus and Arkansas has every right to be furious. Nix threw it backwards. It’s a fumble. Arkansas recovered. Case closed. Credit Sam Pittman’s team though. He has that program competing after it was assumed the Razorbacks were going 0-10 this year.