By Joel Silverberg / @JoelSilverberg
It was an all too familiar feeling for Tennessee on Saturday. And now the Vols are in unfamiliar territory that they haven’t experienced in a while.
Saturday’s 30-17 loss at Auburn gave Tennessee (2-5) its fifth straight loss—the first five-game losing streak for the Vols since 1988.
It might be an all-SEC schedule, but there’s no excuse for Tennessee to be here. The Vols either led or were tied in the second half of three of those five games, including Saturday. Tennessee failed to win or even cover in against Georgia, Arkansas and now Auburn.
After watching Auburn (5-2) tie the game at 10 after jumping out to a 10-0 lead, the Vols and Tigers went into the halftime break deadlocked. Auburn opened the second half with a promising red zone drive, but Tennessee made a stand and forced a field goal.
The Vols drove down the field to the Auburn 12. Facing a 2nd & 7, Jarrett Guarantano dropped back to pass and never took his eyes off Josh Palmer to the right side. Guarantano thought he had Palmer, except he didn’t. Palmer should’ve gotten off his defender sooner, except he didn’t. Guarantano should’ve either checked down or chucked the ball out of bounds, except he didn’t.
Instead, Guarantano forced a pass as Palmer was forced to the inside. Auburn safety Smoke Monday was able to undercut the pass and picked it off before racing 100 yards down the left sideline for a pick six—the third Guarantano has thrown in his last four games.
And just like that, Tennessee went from nearly taking the lead to falling behind further. Auburn would ultimately score 27 unanswered points before Harrison Bailey led a touchdown drive capped off with a 1-yard Eric Gray scoring run.
Guarantano’s pick six wasn’t the only miscue. Kicker Brent Cimaglia missed two field goals, including one from only 37 yards away. The offensive line struggled in pass protection again as Auburn totaled four sacks and four QB hurries. Tennessee’s secondary made a big mistake in the first half when Anthony Schwartz went unchecked down the seam and scored on a wide-open, 54-yard touchdown reception.
Even more frustrating was Tennessee’s offense was fairly balanced and pretty efficient at times. The Vols had 242 passing yards and 222 yards on the ground. Gray had 222 scrimmage yards on 25 touches. The offense only went three-and-out once, but it ultimately couldn’t finish drives.
And Tennessee continues to struggle finishing games. The Vols have been outscored 108-14 in the second half during their five-game slide.
The Volunteers head to Nashville next week to take on Vanderbilt. The Commodores are 0-7, but have covered in their last three games, including last week in a 38-35 loss to Kentucky and Saturday against No. 6 Florida.
With the Gators and Texas A&M following Vanderbilt on the schedule, Saturday is more than likely Tennessee’s last chance to ensure it avoids only the second eight-loss season in school history.
Kickoff will be at 7:30 ET with 99.1 The Sports Animal’s Game Day All Day coverage beginning at 8 a.m. leading up to the Vol Network.
Now to look around the rest of the country, here’s a look at this week’s good, bad and ugly.
The Good: Cincinnati. Saturday’s 36-33 win over UCF could’ve been better for the sake of style points, but it was an impressive showing for the Bearcats after they trailed by as many as 11 and were behind entering the fourth quarter. For any hopes of making the playoffs, Cincinnati needs to keep winning and hope Tulsa is still at a one-loss team when they meet on Dec. 12. On top of that, Cincinnati needs some Power 5 hopefuls to stumble.
Honorable Mention: Northwestern. Pat Fitzgerald’s team is 5-0 after Saturday’s 17-7 win over No. 10 Wisconsin. The Wildcats intercepted Graham Mertz three times and came away with five takeaways overall. Northwestern now has sole possession of first place in the Big Ten West, the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Badgers and Michigan State, Minnesota and Illinois left on the schedule. Two wins in its last three games will send Northwestern to the Big Ten Championship game.
The Bad: Big Ten Officiating. Friday night’s contest between Minnesota and Purdue should’ve ended with a Boilermakers win following Jack Plummer’s go-ahead touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter, but the play was called back for a phantom offensive pass interference call. Plummer was intercepted on the next play and Minnesota held on for the win. Purdue head coach Jeff Brohm said he was never given a clear explanation of the penalty. It’s because there wasn’t one. There seemed to be nothing in the replay pointing to any justification for the call. It’s a blown call that cost Purdue the game. Plain and simple.
Honorable Mention: Wisconsin. Credit has already been given to where it’s due with Northwestern, but the Badgers followed up its win over Michigan with a dud against the Wildcats. Wisconsin was held to a mere 136 yards rushing and were inefficient through the air. The five turnovers didn’t help. Wisconsin also has the tougher schedule to close out the regular season with home games against Minnesota and Indiana before heading to Iowa.
The Ugly: Oklahoma State. The Cowboys were the only team in the Big 12 with less than two losses. That changed Saturday after suffering a 41-13 beatdown in Bedlam to rival Oklahoma. The Cowboys were in the driver’s seat for a spot in the Big 12 Championship game. Now they need help to claw their way back into the mix. Oklahoma, meanwhile, sits in the No. 2 spot behind Iowa State.
Honorable Mention: Georgia. Winning ugly is still winning. It’s also still ugly. Georgia’s 31-24 win over Mississippi State moved the Bulldogs to 5-2, but unless Florida suffers an inexplicable collapse and Georgia wins out, the Bulldogs are merely playing for pride at this point. JT Daniels appears to be the answer at quarterback after throwing for 401 yards and four touchdowns, but Georgia needed a go-ahead touchdown in the fourth quarter and a defensive stop to seal the win despite being 23.5-point favorites at home. 2021 will be a big one for Kirby Smart in Athens.