Tennessee football: Unlikely trio leads resurgence
Tennessee’s 2019 season has a familiar feel.
It wasn’t that long ago — when the Vols were relevant — that an ascension by former UT quarterback Jonathan Crompton changed how Tennessee fans felt about their program. If you remember, Crompton’s recruiting ranking always worked against him. He was constantly criticized for not exceeding the hype. Then, he lived up to that billing during the second half of his senior season and led the Vols to a bowl game. Now, Jarrett Guarantano seems to be following in Crompton’s footsteps.
Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt was adamant after UT’s 17-13 win over Kentucky on Saturday that the Vols couldn’t have beaten the Wildcats without Guarantano’s play in the second half. He was right.
Guarantano was easily the difference in the win against Kentucky. He came off the bench to relieve Brian Maurer, the freshman who got the start. Guarantano didn’t sulk and was more than ready in the second half. He led the Vols to 14 points, completing 7-of-8 passes for 115 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Most fans had given up on Guarantano and why not? Maurer seemed to light a fire underneath the Vols when he replaced Guarantano. Now, Guarantano seems to be the one with the matches.
Credit Pruitt with how he has dealt with adversity this season. In his second season with the Vols, Pruitt has prevented his team from folding. That was no easy task after a season-opening loss against Georgia State and a quarterback controversy that continues to unfold. Pruitt, like Guarantano, has continued to believe in the process. Sorry, that’s a Nick Saban line but it’s accurate.
Guarantano is proof that the Vols are buying into Pruitt’s process. The Vols had every reason to give up when they trailed Kentucky by 13 points in the first quarter. A win against a resurgent rival and a bowl bid seemed to be slipping away. However, the Vols didn’t let the gloom of a flat first half ruin the game. Instead, they responded.
While Guarantano’s performance was impressive, UT’s defense deserves most of the credit. The Vols shut out Kentucky in the final three quarters. Sure, Kentucky has issues on offense but stalemating a team for the majority of the game is impressive.
Many fans flipped over to the Tennessee-Kentucky game after watching the high-scoring battle between LSU and Alabama. By comparison, UT’s win was boring. Get ready for much of the same.
Pruitt’s biggest wins might well be boring moving forward. He’s a defensive coach. I imagine he probably has dreamed about a 2-0 win one day. Sexy? Nope. But it’s still a win.
UT offensive coordinator Jim Chaney is the perfect fit for that. In this day and age of celebrating high scores and highlight plays, Chaney is a bit more old school. Chaney wants Tennessee to score, but he’s also cognizant of what his team needs to win. Sometimes, as it was on Saturday, that means controlling the ball, the clock and the quarterback situation.
That quarterback situation was a powder keg ready to explode. Guarantano was in. He was out. Maurer was in. He was out. No matter. UT’s players and coaches steadily continued on and made the most of the situation. That’s no easy challenge.
UT is quietly 5-5 with reason to believe that Pruitt is building a foundation for success. Not to pour salt in a still open wound, but the Vols would be 6-4 had they taken care of Georgia State in the season opener. Had that happened, the Vols would be staring at the possibility of a sunny-city bowl game. Nevertheless, the Vols are eyeing a 7-win regular season and a bowl game in, well, who cares? It would be a bowl game.
The Vols are led by an unlikely trio. Pruitt is a coach that couldn’t get a head coaching job for two decades. Chaney returned to Knoxville while no one at Georgia seemed to care. And Guarantano? He’s just the guy who was thought to be a bust.
That sounds familiar.