4 biggest reasons UT's offense is stuck in the mud
The Vols are 2-4, and frankly, it’s not all that hard to see why. UT is 13th in the SEC in total yardage and 12th in scoring offense. So how did the Vols’ offense get here? As is typically the case with a systems failure, there’s not a single cause. But we’ve insolated 4 factors that are key to UT’s run on the struggle bus.
1. Missing men in the QB room
Tennessee is between a rock and a hard place at the QB position with senior Jarrett Guarantano and true freshman Harrison Bailey. Reserves Brian Maurer and J.T. Shrout don’t look like options now. There’s some plain back luck here, as UT had commitments from Michael Penix and Adrian Martinez before each decommitted.
All Penix has done at Indiana is lead the Hoosiers to a level of respectability they haven’t seen in a long while, upsetting Penn State and playing their way into the top 10. He’s thrown for 2,363 yards, 18 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. Martinez’s time at Nebraska hasn’t gone as well. But he’s been a solid dual-threat player, passing for 4,803 yards and 27 touchdowns while also rushing for 1,442 yards and 16 more scores.
There’s no guarantee that either could have been the effective component UT needed (although a Guarantano for Penix trade would be agreed to in a New York minute), but at the very least, the missing guys would have given UT a couple more viable options at the position without having to hand the keys to Bailey, which is pretty much the only option left.
2. The big guys up front
Tennessee’s offensive line was expected to be a significant strength in 2020. How much so? Well, Cole Cubelic began the season with the Vols as his 2nd-best OL group in the conference — and that was before Cade Mays was cleared by the SEC. With a group like that, UT has allowed 13 sacks, which ties for 4th-most in the SEC. Despite solid work from running backs Ty Chandler and Eric Gray, the Vols have rushed for 3.6 yards for carry. Much like the sack total, that’s not hideous, but it’s 9th-best in the SEC. This group just hasn’t been able to dominate games in 2020, and that’s a big chunk of how a 2-0 start becomes 2-4 (and could become 3-7).
3. Not enough big plays on the outside
To be completely fair to Guarantano, much of UT’s passing problems haven’t been his. The wide receivers have done a poor job of creating separation and making big plays. Need proof? Tennessee has had 4 plays of 35 yards or longer and 1 play of 40+ yards on the season.
Three of those 4 are from true freshman Jalin Hyatt.
Josh Palmer leads the Vols with 21 catches, 323 yards and 4 TDs. But Brandon Johnson and Velus Jones have yet to impress. Meanwhile, the UT defense has given up 6 plays of more than 40 yards, including 2 of more than 50 yards. College football is hard when your offense has to dink and dunk down the field. UT has lost the ability to rip the lid off the opposing secondary, and it’s showing up on the scoreboard.
4. Tight ends MIA
Most SEC offenses seem to underuse the tight end, and Tennessee has had its fair share of weapons at the position. But the 2020 Vols might as well have not bothered recruiting or dressing anybody at the position. Starters Princeton Fant and Jacob Warren have combined for 5 receptions for 40 yards on the season.
Given the issues noted above with big plays, Tennessee could at least use either guy as a playmaker in the seam of the defense. There’s a reason the Vols are last in the SEC in 3rd-down conversions (27%, a full 5% below 13th-place Mississippi State). Not only are they relying on long drives, but they’re not availing themselves of potential playmakers who could keep the drives moving.