Tennessee football: Question is when, not whether to make QB change
After Saturday’s 34-7 loss to Kentucky, Tennessee’s worst to the Wildcats since 1893, there’s room for plenty of questions about the direction of the program.
One of the most significant is one of the first to come up with a struggling team. Among the oldest traditions in college football — perhaps dating back to before 1893 — is second-guessing the starting quarterback. In the case of Jarrett Guarantano, it’s not the first time his job security has been in doubt.
Guarantano lost the starting job at the beginning of the 2017 season and again during the 2019 season. As a senior starter, he was in pretty good shape during UT’s 2-0 start. But after he turned the ball over 3 times in the second half last week against Georgia, the whispers and rumors started. In a recent scrimmage, freshman phenom Harrison Bailey was reported by Jeremy Pruitt to have taken all of the offensive snaps.
Saturday might have been the tipping point. Guarantano lost a first quarter-fumble, but the game remained scoreless … until he air-mailed a couple of second-quarter pick-6s. He was briefly benched, but backup J.T. Shrout promptly threw a pick on HIS first pass attempt. For the game, Guarantano was 14-for-21 for 88 yards with the 2 interceptions. Bailey saw action in the fourth quarter, completing a nice sideline pass for 24 yards in his limited action. The Tennessee fan base left little doubt how they felt with the massive ovation that Bailey drew in replacing Guarantano.
So here’s the rub. Tennessee fell to 2-2, and the upcoming schedule includes Alabama, Texas A&M, Auburn and Florida. Even a 5-5 season would probably be deemed acceptable at this point. And the future of the Tennessee program isn’t Guarantano. In a perfect world, this is where Tennessee would play UAB or an FCS team. They could give Bailey his first start in a situation where he could lean heavily on the Vols’ ground attack, get some positive experience and post a win.
But it’s 2020. Alabama is the next game on the schedule. Even accepting that Bailey is significantly more advanced than the average freshman, starting him against the Tide feels kind of like delivering a sacrificial lamb. The deck would be substantially stacked against Bailey, and whatever advantage he would gain in experience would likely be offset by the almost inevitable Alabama bludgeoning stunting his growth.
Guarantano is a senior with a 19-22 record during the four seasons in which he has seen game action. His career hasn’t been without obstacles. Brought in by Butch Jones, Guarantano watched Jones’ UT career get flushed away, then hung on as a survivor with Pruitt’s new regime. He has lost and regained his job, and he has always kept his head up and stayed ready to go. Many thought he would transfer, but he didn’t.
He has one more job next week. Somebody has to take it on the chin for this Alabama game. Guarantano has gone 21-for-42 for 162 yards and an interception against Alabama in his career. One last act of senior leadership is to be the good soldier one more time, to put up another good fight not so much for his own career, but for the young Vols who will look for a brighter day in 2021 and beyond.
The following week brings a game with Arkansas. The Razorbacks are certainly no laughing matter, but starting a new quarterback that week would still give Bailey a reasonable opportunity to succeed — frankly, about as good of a chance as any game left on the schedule, aside from Vandy, which is the next-to-last game of the season.
The writing is on the wall for Guarantano and Bailey. The play here is not to rush the change, to hang on for another week, and then make the inevitable move. Anything else carries much more risk than potential reward.