Tennessee cruises into the easiest part of its schedule with one of the most befuddling questions it has faced in recent years. Can the Vols depend on Jarrett Guarantano?

Of course, Jeremy Pruitt said all the right things at his weekly press conference Monday as the Vols begin preparations for South Carolina on Saturday. However, all the cushioning in the world can’t adequately answer just what has happened to Guarantano and ensure that he’ll return to the same form he exhibited at times before this season.

Guarantano was supposed to be the one given for the Vols. UT seemingly had stability and playmaking at quarterback. Before the season, there was actually a debate that the junior could be the 3rd-best quarterback in the SEC, behind Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Georgia’s Jake Fromm. Now, Guarantano ranks 6th in QBR among starting quarterbacks on paper but probably farther back in reality. That’s not terrible. However, there’s more to Guarantano’s issues than just that one stat.

UT’s entire offense just looks different when Guarantano is in the game. The offense seems to mirror the way Guarantano plays — and that’s very unsure of himself. The Vols appeared to remedy the situation when they put freshman Brian Maurer in the game. Maurer seemed to provide an immediate spark. Now, he’s suffered 2 concussions and his future this week — and perhaps beyond — is very much in doubt. So the Vols will almost assuredly have to turn back to Guarantano this week and maybe further into the future. Despite what Pruitt said on Monday, handing the ball back to Guarantano is scary.

Pruitt spent a good bit of his press conference trying to convince the masses that he has complete faith in Guarantano. Did anyone really believe that after the way he played earlier this season and the fact that Pruitt benched him? I didn’t.

I don’t think Pruitt has any confidence in Guarantano, and that’s Pruitt’s fault. Pruitt and first-year offensive coordinator Jim Chaney should share the blame in how UT’s quarterback situation has unfolded this season. The pair had plenty of options and chose the worst one.

Sure, playing Guarantano was the safe bet. He was more experienced and, as previously noted, was thought to be one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC. That hasn’t been the case. Did UT’s coaches not see a glimpse of that in the preseason. The Vols could have given Maurer more 1st-team reps during the offseason to see if there was a case to be made to start the season. Apparently, no one thought Guarantano would struggle because he was named the starter throughout the offseason. Did UT’s coaches not see that there could be a problem?

The Vols also had another option. Stick with Guarantano and see if he could resurrect his season. After all, he was learning a new offense and Chaney was learning a new quarterback. Chaney has had success sticking by his guns in the past.

Former UT quarterback Jonathan Crompton was thought to be a total bust until the second half of the 2009 season. Chaney figured Crompton out or Crompton figured out the offense. Likely, it was a little bit of both and Crompton resurrected his floundering career to end on an incredibly positive note.

Could Guarantano have done the same? We’ll likely never know. His confidence has to be crushed, certainly after being chewed out after Saturday’s game-sealing fumble. Also, if Maurer is healthy again, he’ll likely return to the starting position. Maurer has 3 years left to play. Suddenly he looks like a player to build around. Guarantano once seemed like that. However, that seems like ages ago.

Guarantano’s plight is unfortunate. It seems he’ll go down in history as one of the biggest busts in UT history. He was rated incredibly high when he signed with the Vols. UT’s shortcomings across the board have hampered his growth. However, he had a chance to begin to rewrite the book this season. Instead, it seems he’s just fumbling through the final chapters.

Guarantano is just a redshirt junior. He has 5 games remaining this season and another season to change his legacy. Unfortunately, that doesn’t seem likely. At some point this season Maurer will likely return, Guarantano likely will transfer and the Vols will have wasted another top talent. That’s becoming about as much of a tradition at Tennessee as checkerboard end zones.