Tennessee football: Vols' 2nd-half woes continue. Is there an answer?
Well … that was something.
It’s not surprising that Tennessee lost at 23rd-ranked Auburn 30-17 on Saturday night. It’s not surprising that the final margin was in double digits. And it’s not surprising that the final 30 minutes were filled with bad plays and bad decisions.
We’ve been down this road before.
During this recent 5-game losing streak, which dates back to Oct. 10, the Vols have been outscored 108-14 in the 2nd half. That’s a remarkable amount of ineptitude for the Vols, who were outscored 20-7 by the Tigers in the 3rd and 4th quarters.
Even the play of the game shouldn’t have come as a shock to Vols fans. The 100-yard interception return by Smoke Monday brought back memories of a 100-yard fumble return by Trevon Diggs a year ago at Alabama.
The common denominator in both of those back-breaking turnovers was mistakes by quarterback Jarrett Guarantano.
I guess the difference is that last year, Guarantano’s blunder was completely self-inflicted. He called his own number, which had painful results. This time, some of the blame falls on offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.
Tennessee was down 13-10 midway through the 3rd quarter. Chaney seemed to realize that throwing the football was asking for trouble, so he decided to play bully ball. Put the game in the hands of an offensive line that has underachieved this season, but still has talent across the board.
They were mashing the Tigers’ front 7. Eric Gray picked up 49 yards on 5 straight carries. Chaney went for it all on the next play, but Guarantano’s deep ball to Josh Palmer fell incomplete. The next 3 plays were runs with Ty Chandler that earned 14 yards. On this series, Auburn simply could not stop Tennessee’s ground game.
So why on earth did Chaney decide a pass on 2nd-and-7 from the Auburn 12 was a good idea? It was so predictable what happened next. Guarantano held the ball too long and was hit as he threw, and Monday made Tennessee pay.
Even with that blunder, the Vols were still in the game. Early in the 4th quarter, they drove to the Auburn 15, and every yard they gained that wasn’t via penalty was on the ground. But again, Chaney called for a pass at an inopportune time. Guarantano was sacked on 3rd-and-4, and then Brent Cimaglia missed his 2nd field goal of the night.
And with that, the competitive portion of the game was over.
Tennessee finally handed the offense to true freshman Harrison Bailey with 7:14 to go, trailing by 17. He drove the Vols down the field for a touchdown, mixing the pass with the run on a 9-play, 75-yard journey. Auburn’s defense might not have been as aggressive at that point, more than willing to trade yardage for the ticking of the clock. But seeing Bailey succeed will do nothing to quiet the calls for his insertion into the starting lineup.
Jeremy Pruitt’s seat is getting hotter by the day. I am still extremely skeptical that he’ll be fired if the Vols finish 3-7. Athletic director Phillip Fulmer hired Pruitt and will give him every chance to succeed. At a minimum, changes to the coaching staff will have to be made. Chaney’s return to Knoxville was seen as a positive a couple of years ago. But much like the popular hiring of Bob Shoop as defensive coordinator in 2016, it just hasn’t worked out. Chaney’s 2nd stint as offensive coordinator at Tennessee likely ends next month. The job of quarterbacks coach Chris Weinke is also on thin ice.
But if Tennessee falls to winless Vanderbilt next Saturday, then finishes with expected losses to Florida and Texas A&M and finishes 2-8? Well, then we might see complete turnover on that staff, including Pruitt.
The Vols have lost 5 straight games for the 1st time since 1988, when they started the season 0-6. That team finished strong, winning its last 5 games. They’d go 29-6-2 over the next 3 seasons and win 2 conference titles.
You’d be hard-pressed to find any Tennessee fan right now who believes the future is anywhere close to that bright.