Yes, the loss looked familiar, but there's no reason for Vols fans to panic ... yet
The first 2 1/2 games of the 2020 season were as good as could have been expected for Tennessee.
A tight victory over South Carolina. A dominant win against Missouri. A 4-point lead after 30 minutes at No. 3-ranked Georgia.
This was what Vols fans dreamed of nearly 3 years ago when Jeremy Pruitt was hired as UT’s head coach.
Then … the wheels fell off.
Tennessee was outscored 27-0 in the 2nd half in Athens, and it could have been worse. The 44-21 defeat snapped an 8-game win streak that dated to last October.
The Knoxville based sports talk radio shows on Saturday night and Sunday morning were not for the faint of heart. Most of the vitriol was aimed at quarterback Jarrett Guarantano. In that 2nd half, he coughed up 2 fumbles (1 returned for a touchdown), plus an interception.
No, it was not his finest hour. But he had company, too.
The offensive line was manhandled by Georgia’s front 7. Tennessee’s vaunted rushing attack was held to -1 yards. The Vols’ defense, which played very well overall, ran out of gas in that 2nd half. The Vols didn’t have the depth of their rivals, and it showed.
The doom and gloomers expect that loss to be the precursor to a depressing final 7 games of the 2020 season.
But even in a shortened season, it’s way too early for that type of pessimism.
Let’s remember that Tennessee was nearly a 2-touchdown underdog. This wasn’t a game they were expected to win. The Vols were favored to beat South Carolina and Missouri, and they did. Basically, they are holding court through the first 3 games.
Georgia’s defense is likely the best that Tennessee will see all season. Typically, you could put Alabama into that same argument, but the Crimson Tide was exposed greatly in their 63-48 win over Ole Miss on Saturday night. It’s hard to imagine the Vols’ offense struggling as much as they did against the Bulldogs.
Eric Gray and Ty Chandler will run effectively in the weeks to come as the competition (while still at times stingy) gets less fierce. This will also open up more opportunities in the passing game. Guarantano certainly struggled and made poor decisions when under pressure against Georgia. But Tennessee’s Josh Palmer continues to prove that he can be a No. 1 receiver on this team after grabbing 2 touchdown passes in the 1st half at UGA.
Defensively, there’s a lot to like. The goal-line stand at the end of the half didn’t carry over, but this is a unit that isn’t afraid to fight back in times of trouble. The same cannot be said about recent Tennessee defenses.
You also have to wonder what effect the loss of Deandre Johnson had on that defense as well. Johnson was kicked out of the Georgia game after he was flagged for targeting on an ill-advised helmet-to-helmet hit on Georgia quarterback Stetson Bennett IV. Johnson had 3.5 sacks in the first 2 games. Without his presence, the Vols only sacked Bennett once.
As hard as it is to come to terms with for Tennessee fans, right now the Vols do not have the roster to compete with Georgia, Alabama and Florida, the 3 best teams they face each year. There are reinforcements on the way with a top 10 Class of 2021 ready to sign December, but that’s in the future, not the present.
Tennessee can still have a very good season, and can still show improvement in Pruitt’s 3rd season. Will there be a statement win on the docket? We’ll find out in the weeks to come.
But even after a 4th consecutive loss to Georgia, there’s no reason for Tennessee fans to sound the alarms and start tracking planes just yet.