Jimmy’s blog: Vols seek to avoid longest losing skid in 32 years

By Jimmy Hyams 

Tennessee has not lost five games in a row since 1988.

It didn’t happen on Phillip Fulmer’s watch.

Or Lane Kiffin’s watch.

Or Butch Jones’ watch.

Or even Derek Dooley’s watch.

But it might happen on Jeremy Pruitt’s watch, if the Vols (2-4) don’t defy the odds and upset 11-point favorite Auburn (4-2) on The Plains Saturday night.

Tennessee’s last trip to Auburn, the Vols did defy the odds as quarterback Jarrett Guarantano had arguably the best game of his career.

Guarantano completed 21 of 32 passes for 328 yards and two touchdowns. He completed eight passes on third-and-8 or more.

His so-called 50-50 balls to his wide receivers were more like 75-25 balls, since the accuracy favored a UT player making the catch.

Guarantano might need another brilliant performance if UT wants to snap its skid.

Auburn comes in ranked No. 23. It was No. 21 two years ago.

UT forced three turnovers two years ago. It likely will need to do the same Saturday.

It’s possible Guarantano won’t even start against the Tigers. The fifth-year senior suffered a concussion against Arkansas in the second half and didn’t practice last week. He returned Sunday and had a good week, Pruitt said.

But Pruitt stopped short of naming Guarantano the starter, saying it would be a game-time decision.

“It doesn’t do us any advantage to tell Auburn who we’re going to play at quarterback,’’ Pruitt said.

If Guarantano doesn’t start, it likely will be true freshman Harrison Bailey, the only backup this season who has given UT any spark. Yet, that was during a two-minute drill late against Arkansas, which was playing a prevent defense.

Pruitt’s defenses have typically done well against Gus Malzahn’s offenses.

Auburn got off to a slow start this season on the ground, rushing for an average of just 101 yards in the first three games.

But the Tigers have rushed for more than 200 yards in each of the last three games, including a 48-11 rout of LSU.

Malzahn said Auburn’s offensive line played musical chairs early due to COVID and injuries and has played better of late. And he said first-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris is “getting a feel’’ for what works best.

What works best is giving the ball to true freshman running back Tank Bisby, a UT recruiting target last year. Bigsby has rushed for 503 yards and five touchdowns in six games while averaging 5.7 yards per carry.

Quarterback Bo Nix has been up and down, but has played well of late and is mobile.

Auburn hasn’t played since Oct. 31 and Malzahn said he hopes his offense won’t be out of sync.

Tennessee last played Nov. 7, losing on the road 24-13 to Arkansas and first-year head coach Sam Pittman.

Pruitt and Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele are close friends who coached together at Alabama. Each was a finalist for the Tennessee job in 2018.

Pruitt said he called Steele last Wednesday and Steele said he was ‘`working on Tennessee.’’ Pruitt said he jokingly gave Steele a scouting report on UT.

Was the scouting report accurate?

“No,’’ Pruitt laughed. “We both got a kick out of it.’’

But Pruitt did say his familiarity with Steele makes it easier to “give input to the offensive coaches when they say, `Hey, what are they doing here, why are they doing it this way?’’

Maybe it will be enough to help UT avoid its longest losing streak in 32 years.

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