KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Heading into the first year of the Jeremy Pruitt era, there was a dreaded three- game stretch that loomed large all of the offseason for Tennessee. There were back-to-back road trips to Georgia and Auburn before a not-so-friendly welcome home against top-ranked Alabama. That may be the toughest stretch that any college football team will face this season.
After falling to to No. 2 Georgia, 38-12 on Saturday, the Vols now find themselves in the thick of that stretch. Now, a bye week stands between them and their first trip to Auburn since 2008. While it comes as no surprise that Tennessee will enter that game as losers of their last 11 conference games, they showed enough positives against Georgia to make their showdown with the Tigers a little more intriguing than previously expected.
There may not have been a more fitting play to sum up Tennessee’s luck during the last 10 years than when the Vols’ pass rush forced a Jake Fromm fumble early in the first quarter, only to watch Georgia tight end Issac Nauta pick up the ball and race 31 yards for a touchdown. By the time Tennessee had completed a total of two offensive positions, they had already punted four times thanks to a procedure penalty that was called on them on back-to-back punts.
In spite of those mistakes, Tennessee only trailed 24-12 early in the fourth quarter. While Georgia missed out on some scoring opportunities themselves, the Bulldogs put the ball on the ground four times, but not one of them were recovered by the Vols.
Would the potential turnovers have made that much of a difference? Maybe, maybe not. But Tennessee found themselves in position late in Saturday’s game that no one expected them to be in.
Following the game, Jeremy Pruitt made it clear that his team would in no way look at their performance as a moral victory, which should have caused a collective sigh of relief for a Tennessee fan base that has had too many moral victories to count.
But there was something that Pruitt did see in their second straight loss. He saw fight. He saw something Tennessee seemed far removed from a week ago after a 47-21 loss to Florida, and that was something to build off of.
Pruitt: “We made a step in the right
“To me, there’s no moral victories. I’m not going to stand up here and be proud we lost… (but) if we will start doing the way we did this week, then the other stuff will take care of itself."
— David Cobb (@DavidWCobb) September 29, 2018
Now, 2-3 overall and 0-2 in SEC play at this point for the second consecutive season, a rendezvous with the Auburn Tigers awaits. And while Tennessee will enter its third-straight game as an underdog, Saturday’s events have all of the sudden made this meeting a little more interesting for both teams. Tennessee may not go into Jordan-Hare and pull off the upset, but the idea that the Vols could be in the game late is not out of the realm of possibility.
Auburn bounced back a week ago following a surprising loss at home to LSU by grinding out a 34-3 win over Arkansas. On Saturday, the Tigers had a lackluster 23-13 win over Southern Miss. Granted, a weather delay that nearly totaled three hours may have given Auburn the benefit of the doubt, but they looked like a beatable team had it been an SEC game.
While Tennessee struggled mightily in the run game versus Georgia (totaling just 66 yards on the ground), Auburn managed just 96 against Southern Miss. Auburn’s run defense held the Golden Eagles to just 45 yards rushing, but gave up 215 and a touchdown through the air. Tigers were held under 100 yards rushing against Arkansas and Southern Miss.
Stopping the run could prove key in hanging with Auburn. While Auburn quarterback Jarrett Stidham has proven dangerous throwing the ball, Tennessee’s defensive line was responsible for three sacks and four tackles for loss on Saturday. Two Georgia fumbles were a result of that.
On the flip side, Tennessee’s defense — not unexpectedly, of course — did give up 251 rushing yards and five touchdowns.
Offensively, Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano threw a pair of touchdown passes and tossed for 143 yards against Georgia. His most telling stat after last week’s loss to Florida though, was the fact that he didn’t throw any interceptions. In fact, a late fumble by Jeremy Banks was Tennessee’s lone turnover in the game, a week after giving away six to the Gators.
Minimizing turnovers on offense, taking advantage of them on defense, keeping Auburn’s run game in check and not giving up the big play in the secondary could all be factors in Tennessee’s road upset bid two weeks from now.
The bye week could not have come at a better time for Pruitt and Tennessee as they prepare for the last two games of a brutal stretch. That time off could be used to fix problems on defense, and prepare for an Auburn team that travels to Starkville to play Mississippi State before facing the Vols.
The narrative may have changed a little bit for the Vols after Saturday, and if Pruitt is right about his team maintaining that style of play and it translating to marked improvement going forward, Tennessee’s game with Auburn could be closer than many expected just a week ago.