Tennessee football: All the excuses are gone; it's Harrison Bailey's time
The last month and a half has been a historically bad run for Tennessee football. But there are 2 pieces of good news:
First, Tennessee plays Florida on Saturday. Victory in that game is a long, long shot. But it’s a game that could at least fix the perception of Vols football as a broken machine running off a cliff.
Second, it’s Harrison Bailey time.
Yes, everybody understands that under the informal phenomenon of Backup QB Syndrome, every fan base in the nation is convinced that its team would be undefeated and bound for the College Football Playoff if only the backup quarterback were getting the majority of offensive snaps. But it’s hard not to agree that UT football would be in better shape with literally anybody other than Jarrett Guarantano playing QB.
Yes, Guarantano has been a dutiful soldier — taking hit after hit, losing and regaining the starting job and returning to Tennessee in this fairly lame-duck season. But his senior season QB rating is lower than his freshman QB rating. He turns the ball over at inopportune times (see Smoke Monday’s 100-yard pick-6 that made the difference in the most recent loss to Auburn), and he generally looks like a golfer with the yips. And fairly or not, he has become a symbol of everything that has gone wrong in Knoxville since 2007’s SEC title game appearance.
Under the variety of successor coaches to Phil Fulmer, Lane Kiffin to Derek Dooley to Butch Jones to Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee has still managed to compile decent amounts of gridiron talent. But where the rubber has met the road, UT has missed having that symbol of the program under center. Not only hasn’t Peyton Manning been walking through that door, neither has Heath Shuler or Tee Martin or even Erik Ainge or Casey Clausen.
Sure, Josh Dobbs had some great games … but he also came up short in the biggest games. Tyler Bray had tons of arm talent, but he also was at the helm of some UT teams that looked absolutely lost. Guarantano will be primarily remembered for staring down another pick-6 or coughing up a fumble at an inopportune moment.
More than the reality of Guarantano, Tennessee needs to move on from the optics of Guarantano. For instance, if you’re a highly-regarded wide receiver recruit and you watch how long Pruitt slavishly sticks with Guarantano while keeping Bailey on the bench, it wouldn’t make you think he’d be in a hurry to bench some of these junior and senior receivers who aren’t getting open or making big plays.
Guarantano represents UT football’s distant past, which feels further away by the minute. Bailey has to be the future. Pruitt would be well-advised to acknowledge how broken this UT offense truly is. Given that a losing season is all but guaranteed, there’s absolutely no reason to keep wasting snaps on Guarantano when Bailey has thrown 23 passes as a Vol — with 10 of those coming in the last game at Auburn.
Pruitt’s postgame comments from Auburn aside, it’s Bailey time.
So much of 2020 will be collectively written off. Bailey can claim it as a redshirt year, per the NCAA’s preseason ruling, regardless of how many snaps he plays. There are no more than 3 regular-season games left, no more than 4 games left in total. COVID-19, both due to the all-SEC schedule and to the effects on the team, hasn’t done Tennessee any favors. It all screams for Bailey to get as many snaps as he can handle.
Of the many things UT football is missing right now, hope might be the biggest. While the 2020 season is an oddball, and hopefully one-off, kind of thing, it has already cost Will Muschamp his job at South Carolina. Pruitt needs to start selling 2021 and 2022 if he doesn’t want to follow the same path. A big part of that starts with the guy under center.
It’s Harrison Bailey time. It’s time to hand the keys to UT football’s present to the guy who is the future.