Tennessee football: 5 things we have to see from Vols in Week 1
College GameDay won’t be in Knoxville on Saturday when Tennessee hosts Georgia State. The game isn’t going to set any television viewing records. The Vols figure to have a ho-hum, easy game to open the season. Given where UT has been over the past decade, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Tennessee’s football team will not be judged by whether they win. They’ll win, but the Vols will be judged by style points as much as any scoreboard in Neyland Stadium.
Here are 5 things Tennessee fans have to see on Saturday:
1. A clean Jarrett Guarantano
The Vols can accomplish this in two ways. First, UT’s young offensive line needs to protect Guarantano. Second, the Vols need to put the game out of reach so he doesn’t have to play the entire game. If Guarantano is on the field running around in the 4th quarter, something has gone terribly wrong.
Let’s be frank. UT’s offensive line is probably going to struggle. However, it should be up to the test against Georgia State. Guarantano will take more than his fair share of hits this season. It doesn’t need to happen this week.
A game like this could also allow Guarantano to find his way in a new offense. Florida won’t let him ease into a game like a perfectly warmed hot tub. Georgia State might. If Guarantano takes a handful of hits or looks uncomfortable at all, that’s a problem. That leads us to …
2. An offense that looks like it has a plan
The Vols aren’t going to show anything exotic Saturday. There are much more formidable teams down the road to pull out traps, coverage busters and trick plays. The Vols won’t just be vanilla against Georgia State. They’ll be plain yogurt.
However, they have a chance to see what their players do well, especially with a new offensive coordinator, Jim Chaney, at the helm. This is an opportunity for self-evaluation even if that means just communicating from the coaches’ box to the sideline to the field.
The Vols have some ability at receiver to create mismatches downfield, but that might not be their forte. UT should be able to spread teams out wide with some running backs who can be key in the passing game. The Vols don’t appear to have an elite skill-position player, but they do have several good ones. UT’s coaches need to put them in the best position possible.
3. Big plays on defense
Given the difference in talent between UT and Georgia State, there’s no reason to think the Vols can’t create some points with their defense. That won’t be the case for most of the season as UT’s talent gap won’t be nearly as pronounced against SEC opponents. Still, this is a chance to gain some confidence and become more of a difference in the final score than they were last year.
Don’t look for a plethora of strip-sacks Saturday. The Vols’ d-line is young and inexperienced, even with transfer Aubrey Solomon reportedly eligible. There’s no reason to think the Vols can’t win some 1-on-1 battles with Georgia State. As for truly game-changing plays, the Vols should be able to intercept at least a couple of passes. If not, how can they be expected to produce against the quality quarterbacks they’ll face this season?
4. Special teams should shine
Again, the Vols have more talent than Georgia State. That should show up with at least one touchdown on special teams. Remember the days when the Vols could break a lesser opponent’s will with special teams play? Saturday could be a fond reminder for UT fans.
5. Underclassmen players should stand out
With closed practices, UT fans have only had random news reports to help them determine who are the future stars. Here are some possibilities: linebackers Quavaris Crouch and Henry To’oto’o. As for offensive players, running back Eric Gray seems to be the most likely candidate to rise to stardom this season.
This could be the most important factor on this list. Sure, the Vols could achieve plenty by being a cohesive group on offense and taking advantage of their opposition’s mistakes on defense. However, if UT head coach Jeremy Pruitt doesn’t show that the Vols are more talented than when he took over following the 2017 season, then is the program any better? If the Vols don’t show a significant uptick in talent soon, is Pruitt the man for the job?
Pruitt’s not going to beat Alabama and Georgia for recruits regularly, but he should win some of those battles. Also, he has to find some players that those programs have mistakenly overlooked, a la Mark Stoops at Kentucky. That’s the type of recruiter that the Vols will have to have if they ever hope to return to national prominence.