By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
It wasn’t in the manner Vol fans have grown accustomed to, but Saturday felt all too similar in Knoxville.
The Vols lost 48-17 to fall to Alabama for the 14th consecutive year, Tennessee gave up another defensive touchdown and Jeremy Pruitt’s defense gave up nearly 600 yards of total offense, but it wasn’t a matter of major mistakes that compounded and escalated that put the Vols in the hole. It was a matter of being outmatched by a better team. And while Pruitt claimed after the game the gap in the SEC is closing, watching Alabama reload and rebound from failing to make the College Football Playoff a year ago to looking like a runaway SEC champion is disheartening.
The biggest question mark from the last two weeks has been quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. After six turnovers in the Georgia and Kentucky games combined, Pruitt said the quarterback position was undecided. It seemed possible if Guarantano struggled against Alabama, a change could be made during the bye week.
Instead, Guarantano played a mostly clean game. He was only 13-24, but Alabama’s secondary was the reason for several of those incompletions. Guarantano had no turnovers, was never sacked and threw several nice deep balls—including a pair of touchdown passes to Jalin Hyatt and Josh Palmer. He didn’t take the game over, but he didn’t cost Tennessee the game either.
A plain vanilla game at quarterback doesn’t win a lot of games in the SEC, but it doesn’t necessarily suggest Guarantano will be hooked for the Arkansas game in two weeks.
Tennessee has other problems it needs to correct before facing the Razorbacks. The running game wasn’t effective against Alabama and made it difficult for the Vols to establish a rhythm on offense. Plus, the defense—other than Henry To’oto’o—is struggling. Halfway through the season, the Vols are giving up 33 points per game. Only Florida and Ole Miss are allowing more in the SEC.
Arkansas was supposed to be one of the gimme games on this schedule for Tennessee. Now it feels like a must-win just to give the Vols a chance to break even in 2020.
With Tennessee off this week, it’s time to look at the past week’s good, bad and ugly.
The Good: Indiana. Welcome back, Big Ten! Michael Penix Jr. (former Tennessee commit) led a late touchdown drive, converted a two-point conversion to force overtime, then made a wild stretch for the pylon on the game-winning two-point conversion to stun Penn State, 36-35. It’s the first win for the Hoosiers over a top ten team since 1987.
Honorable Mention: Ohio State. Justin Fields had more touchdowns than incompletions in the Buckeyes’ 52-17 season-opening win over Nebraska. Ohio State totaled nearly 500 yards of total offense and five different players had a rush of ten yards of longer. Fields has two deep threats in Garrett Wilson and Chris Olave, who both had over 100 yards receiving. Penn State will be a bigger test, but it’s a good start for Ryan Day’s team.
The Bad: Officiating in Auburn games. First there’s the Fix for Nix after Bo Nix’s backwards spike was ruled to not have been followed by an immediate recovery by Arkansas. The Tigers took advantage of the call to kick a game-winning field goal. On Saturday, a kickoff that appeared to touch Auburn returner Shaun Shivers bounced into the end zone and was ruled a touchback rather than a touchdown after Ole Miss recovered the football. A game-winning touchdown pass from Nix to Seth Williams ultimately gave the Tigers a 35-28 win over the Rebels. Auburn is somehow 3-2. It should be thankful it’s not 1-4.
Honorable Mention: Michigan State. Rutgers hadn’t won a Big Ten league game in three years. That changed after the Scarlet Knights handled Sparty 38-27 in a game Rutgers led by as many as 18 at one point. Michigan State committed seven turnovers, losing five of six fumbles. An upcoming road trip to Ann Arbor has Mel Tucker’s first season looking at a 0-2 start.
The Ugly: Minnesota. Tanner Morgan’s back. Rashod Bateman’s back. The Golden Gophers started off with a big blocked punt that ultimately resulted in a touchdown to jump on top early…and none of it mattered as Minnesota got pummeled by Michigan on its own turf. Credit to the Wolverines for coming out with a statement win in primetime to start the season, but Minnesota needs to pick things up quickly to follow up an impressive season last year.
Honorable Mention: Virginia Tech. It’s one thing to lose to North Carolina. It’s another to lose to Wake Forest after the quarterback is picked off three times by a walk-on freshman (shoutout to Nick Andersen, who also led the Demon Deacons with 11 tackles). The Hokies dropped their second game in three weeks with a 23-16 loss on Saturday. Now midway through his fifth season, Justin Fuente’s ranked Virginia Tech teams have now lost six times to an unranked opponent.