Football is upon us, and among the many questions swirling ahead of this uncertain season, we had plenty of ‘em to ask our sister blog, Rocky Top Talk, about Tennessee. Terry Lambert sat down with GABA to share a little about how Vols fans are feeling as Saturday approaches.
The Vols are coming off a nice 8-5 (5-3 SEC) season that included a bowl victory, and given the strength of Tennessee’s recent recruiting on top of that, some pundits are declaring UT to be in varying stages of Back. What’s the general feeling in Knoxville as the 2020 season dawns?
We use the word “back” very carefully around these parts, but things are certainly looking up. Jeremy Pruitt was born to coach SEC football and has been such a great fit. His no-nonsense style is the perfect contrast to Butch Jones, which is something that the program badly needed.
I’d say the general feeling is that Tennessee fits in that second tier of SEC programs right now, obviously still a recruiting class or two away from hanging with a Georgia or Alabama. Taking it a step further, Tennessee just hasn’t had the quarterback needed to compete at a high level. More on that below…
Jarrett Guarantano — it feels like he’s been in orange for eight years, and he’s had his share of ups and downs. How confident are you in his development to this point?
Quite honestly, I’m not sure how you can have any confidence that he’ll grow past what he was last season. At some point you just are what you are, and he’s a very inconsistent passer. It’s not all his fault — he’s been through four offensive coordinators in Knoxville. This will actually be his first season with a returning coordinator, so that has offered us some hope for a potential jump. The way this team is built, they don’t need him to go be the rockstar passer, they just need him to do the basics so Tennessee can lean on their offensive line and rushing attack. Jarrett has been all over the place with his play over the last four years, but as a fifth-year senior, Tennessee just needs him to play within himself and offer some level of consistency.
Tennessee is returning a good amount of experience across the board this year. Which unit(s) do you see as the strength of the team, particularly as they match up against the Gamecocks?
Offensive line, hands down. Tennessee returns all five starters from last year and added Cade Mays, but it remains to be seen if he’s going to get cleared. Even if he doesn’t, this position is the strongest on the roster. You’re talking about starting as many as four five-star prospects up front, each with at least a season of playing experience. It’s been a long time since Tennessee was able to dominate up front, but they should be able to do that all season long. Eric Gray and Ty Chandler will be the beneficiaries and should carry Jim Chaney’s offense, starting on Saturday night.
Tennessee is also strong at cornerback, featuring South Carolina’s own Bryce Thompson. Alontae Taylor and Shawn Shamburger have played at lot of football now and have earned the trust of the staff, which could free up Derrick Ansley to execute a more aggressive gameplan. The Vols’ veteran secondary should shine against what looks to be an inexperienced group at receiver.
South Carolina is just a measly 2.5-point underdog in this one, which I have to admit kind of surprised me given some of our (rather significant) personnel losses and general question marks. I know it’s just a betting line, but do you see that as a fair assessment?
I can’t imagine being an oddsmaker right now. So many unknowns floating around out there, no spring ball, quarantine mysteries — it’s got to be a tough job these days.
But I do agree with you. It’s odd to talk about continuity at Tennessee being a potential advantage, but I sure am glad that Jim Chaney installed his offense last season with a full spring to work out some kinks. Year two under Derrick Ansley and year three under Pruitt should also help. Returning 17 starters is going to be a big deal right off the bat.
I just think there are too many unknowns on the South Carolina offense to have a number this small, but then again, Pruitt’s week one performances to this point have been dreadful (West Virginia, Georgia State).
Finally, related to the above: Care to make a prediction?
I don’t think this is a pretty football game, but I do think Tennessee will have an advantage at the line of scrimmage. Look for a conservative gameplan from Jim Chaney as he takes the air out of the ball in the second half to seal up a Tennessee victory.
Many thanks to Terry for his thoughtful responses, and be sure to check out GABA’s over on Rocky Top Talk.