Jarrett Manning? Tom Guarantano? Why the Vols' quarterback has owned UK
If the Vols are feeling a little nervous ahead of Saturday’s matchup with Kentucky, there’s one simple fact that should bring back their confidence — they’ll have Jarrett Guarantano at quarterback.
Yes, the UT offense has seen good Jarrett and bad Jarrett plenty of times over the past 4 seasons. Last week, for instance, they saw both in the same game against Georgia. Against some teams, bad Jarrett has taken most of the snaps. For instance, Alabama (21-for-42 passing, 162 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT, 77.6 QB Rating) and Florida (17-for-35 passing, 271 yards, 0 TD, 4 INT, 90.8 QB rating) have mostly feasted off of bad Jarrett.
Kentucky can be forgiven at this point for only believing in VERY good Jarrett. Not only has Guarantano beaten the past 2 Kentucky teams that have gone 18-6 against teams that weren’t the Vols, but his career stats against UK are the picture of precision — 37-for-51 passing (that’s 72.5% completions), 554 yards, 4 TD, 0 INT, 189.7 QB rating.
The only teams that Guarantano has posted better numbers against are FCS foe Chattanooga (in 1 game) and Mississippi State (against whom he only attempted 7 passes).
Why Kentucky? Perhaps it’s the offensive line? Well, that would struggle to explain how Guarantano completed 18-of-23 passes for 242 yards against Kentucky in 2017 despite being sacked 7 times. Could it be that Kentucky’s secondary is just overrated? Well, games like Ole Miss in Week 2 of the 2020 season would make that argument pretty well, but consider that backup Brian Maurer saw a significant number of snaps in 2019 — and went 7-for-16 for 98 yards. No, Maurer led UT to a 13-3 halftime deficit in 2019, before Guarantano took over out of the halftime locker room and immediately threw 2 scoring passes to provide UT with the margin of victory.
Actually, the key to Guarantano’s success against UK has been the big play. Guarantano has had success hitting his wide receivers down the field in the vertical passing game.
In 2018, Kentucky allowed only 16 passing plays of 30+ yards on the season. Guarantano hit 3 of those passes, more than any opposing quarterback all season.
In 2019, UK allowed only 9 passes of 30+ yards, and again UT had 3 of them (2 for Guarantano, 1 for Maurer). Meanwhile, the lack of interceptions thrown by Guarantano speaks to the fact that the deep ball calls haven’t hurt UT, even on the occasions when they aren’t burning UK, either.
Kentucky is very aware of Guarantano’s Tom Brady-like performances. In his weekly teleconference, Mark Stoops noted, “They do a nice job of creating some matchups and then throwing some shot plays outside and deep.” Speaking of Guarantano, Stoops commented that he “really respects him” and that Guarantano “can deliver the football down the field.”
Meanwhile, this current Kentucky defense has been hit and miss on the big play. The Wildcats gave up a pair of 30+ yard passes to Ole Miss, when the Rebels rolled up 42 points in their overtime win over UK in Week 2. Last week, Mississippi State went without any 30+ yard passes — and added 6 interceptions into the mix as UK won easily.
Of course, UT had been doing pretty well with Guarantano before a 2nd-half struggle against Georgia set some within the fan base looking for a QB change. Jeremy Pruitt told the media that Guarantano would remain his starter, noting, “When you don’t have a lot of success, the quarterback takes too much blame. When you have a lot of success, the quarterback probably gets too much credit.”
Guarantano’s track record creates a fair chance that he’ll be getting plenty of credit rather than blame on Saturday afternoon. Kentucky hasn’t won in Knoxville since 1984. If UT can pick up an 18th consecutive home win over the Cats, there’s a fair chance that Guarantano and the vertical passing game will be right in the middle of it.