How to solve the mess that is Tennessee football right now
Anybody with two eyes and a brain could see that what happened in Knoxville on Saturday was the sign of bigger problems. Losing 41-0 at home to a division foe as about as inexcusable as anything if you’re Tennessee.
Well, except for maybe going wire-to-wire with a winless Group of 5 team at home. Whoops.
Tennessee is a full-blown disaster and we’re in the first week of October. All but gone is any legitimate shot of making it to Atlanta after losing to Florida and Georgia, both of which were in their own devastating fashion.
There are plenty of people calling for Butch Jones’ job. Right now, it appears safe. If the Vols lay a few more eggs in October, that might be a different story.
This week will be a much-needed bye for Tennessee. At least for one Saturday, Jones and the Vols won’t have to drown in a chorus of boos from their home fans. They have two weeks to get back to the drawing board to try and figure out a way to resurrect their lifeless season.
Here’s where they should start.
1. Make the quarterback change
It has to happen. Jones said that he would “be open” to putting in Jarrett Guarantano for Quinten Dormady. I’m not saying Guarantano has been an upgrade in his limited snaps, but Jones has to see what he has in the redshirt freshman. Jones cannot use Guarantano’s age as an excuse not to start him.
Guarantano has to be able to start and finish a game. There shouldn’t be anymore of this business where he comes in the second half of a close game for one series. See what the kid can do when he gets enough snaps to get into a rhythm.
If there was ever a situation to make a midseason quarterback change, this is it. The Vols get a bye week to prepare for a home game against a South Carolina team that just lost to true freshman quarterback Kellen Mond.
Tennessee has plenty of time to draw up a game plan for Guarantano that doesn’t put him in difficult situations. He’s more mobile than Dormady, which at least give him a little better chance to survive the Vols’ lackluster offensive line. Speaking of that …
2. Open up competition across entire offensive line
Tennessee OL Brett Kendrick said that the Georgia loss happened because of the offensive line. He’s got a point. The Vols were man-handled up front by a vastly superior unit. If they don’t improve, it won’t matter if Peyton Manning is back there.
And yeah, the butt fumbles have to go.
This wasn’t the snap Tennessee needed right now. pic.twitter.com/BSfQ8N5owM
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 30, 2017
Sure, this unit has been banged up. What unit hasn’t though? There was no excuse for playing like that. There’s also no excuse for allowing 12 tackles for loss against UMass.
Jones said he’s opening up every position. This is a great place to start. Nobody has a starting spot unless they earn it in these next two weeks of practice. If a little in-house job competition doesn’t provide a swift kick in the pants, nothing will.
3. Get the ball to John Kelly by any means necessary
In Jones’ defense, Kelly is on his way to out-touch the entire SEC. He had 20-plus touches in all five games, which obviously cannot change. Kelly should be Guarantano’s new best friend. The more dump-off passes and screens to him, the better. Shoot, line him up in the slot and get him on a quick drag. Target him on a wheel route. Whatever. Get him the rock.
Clearly, Kelly is Tennessee’s best source of offense. For a unit that’s struggling mightily to throw the ball, he needs to be targeted even more in the passing game.
I’m convinced that unless it’s Georgia or Alabama, he’ll be able to rack up plenty of yards against any defense he faces. He’s that dynamic in the open field. Few guys are tougher to bring down than Kelly in all of college football.
Let’s not forget that Kelly torched Florida for 237 yards from scrimmage. If Jones inexplicably didn’t ignore this guy in the red zone, maybe Tennessee wouldn’t have the nation’s No. 98 offense.
Get off me. pic.twitter.com/HuQ0xDsOeP
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) September 16, 2017
Get. Him. The. Ball.
4. Trust that the offensive issues are at the root of Tennessee’s problems
I know. Tennessee just gave up 41 points at home. The Vols are two weeks removed from allowing an unthinkable Hail Mary touchdown in the final seconds against Florida.
But I actually think Tennessee’s defense is part of the solution, not the problem.
Against Georgia, that unit was gassed. How is it supposed to catch its breath when the offense musters two first-half drives of more than three plays? There’s only so long a group can hold together, especially against superior athletes like Georgia has.
It wasn’t a coincidence that Tennessee’s defense crumbled in the fourth quarter at Florida, either. Even when the Vols scored their two fourth-quarter touchdowns, they were on drives that totaled 129 seconds and 30 seconds. Against Tennessee and Florida, the Vols had a total of two drives that lasted five minutes or longer (both were against Florida).
Tennessee ranks 106th in FBS in average time of possession. It shows. The missed tackles always seem to add up in the fourth quarter.
Bob Shoop’s unit has looked significantly better than it did last year. Without that group playing the way it has so far, Tennessee gets blown out at Florida, it loses at home to UMass and it loses by 60 against Georgia. I was critical of Shoop’s performance last year, and it still has to continue to improve.
But if Tennessee is going to throw a coordinator under the bus in the following weeks, Shoop shouldn’t be first on the chopping block.
5. If nothing changes against South Carolina …
You probably expected to see “Fire Butch Jones” at No. 1 on this list. I’m not big on firing a coach after he loses his second game of the year (sup, LSU?). Do I think it’s working with Jones? No. Do I believe he took a big step toward the door out of Knoxville on Saturday? Yes, I do.
But let’s see what happens against South Carolina before any coaching changes are made. If the Vols don’t look like a changed team against the Gamecocks — especially on offense — it’s not crazy to think that Larry Scott could be out of a job. Then again, if Tennessee falls to 0-3 in SEC play and suffers another woeful offensive performance at home, public perception might be too strong to save anyone on Jones’ staff.
Ultimately, Jones doesn’t look like the guy who is going to turn Tennessee into a winner. Believing that, would I fire him today? No. Considering what he inherited, he earned the right to at least try and pull off an in-season turnaround.
Tennessee is not on Georgia’s level this year. Few teams are. Saturday served as an eye-opening experience for just how far away the Vols are from relevancy. They aren’t going to flip a switch and turn into an SEC East champs in 2017. With Jones, they might not ever be capable of winning the division.
But for now, Tennessee isn’t focused on conference titles. It has two weeks to do something it couldn’t do on Saturday.
Show the world it isn’t a complete mess.