Tennessee needed a big win in a big way. And on Saturday, they found a way to do it.
The Vols upended No. 21 Auburn on the road on Saturday, taking down the Tigers 30-24 in front of a home crowd in Jordan-Hare Stadium. Tennessee used three Tiger turnovers to get 14 points, one of them on a strip sack that was returned for a score, and the Vols made the most of Auburn’s mistakes to come away with Jeremy Pruitt’s first SEC victory as a head coach.
Tennessee used their best offensive game of the season and a great effort by the defense in the second half to score 20 unanswered points to go up 30-17. Auburn didn’t end the bleeding until 37 seconds left in the game when they scored a late touchdown in a futile comeback effort.
On offense, the Vols didn’t turn the ball over once and averaged 5.8 yards per play. The offensive line still gave up plenty of negative plays (10 tackles for loss and three sacks), but Tennessee amassed 396 yards of total offense and scored 30 points on an SEC team for the first time since a 45-34 loss to Vanderbilt in 2016.
Here are our five biggest observations from the Vols’ 30-24 win over No. 21 Auburn.
No Bad Start This Time
Tennessee has had bad start after bad start against quality opponents this year. They came into Saturday’s game having been outscored 31-0 in the first quarter by Power Five opponents.
The Vols didn’t have a great beginning to Saturday’s game, but it was much better than it had been previously.
Tennessee finally scored a first quarter point against a Power Five school when they connected on a field goal to make it a 7-3 game in the first quarter. The Vols would go on to score a touchdown and another field goal in the second quarter, and for the first time in SEC play this year, they’d made it a competitive game at the half. Auburn only led 17-13 despite racking up 288 yards of offense in the first half. Tennessee intercepted two passes in the first half, and they used that to kill the Tigers’ momentum. The Vols scored their only first half touchdown on the ensuing possession after their first interception.
Guarantano’s Career Day
Jarrett Guarantano entered Saturday’s game never having thrown for 300 yards in a single game in his college career. He ended that drought against Auburn.
Guarantano easily surpassed his career-high of 242 yards on Saturday by totaling 328 yards and two touchdowns on 21-of-32 passing. His 328 yards of passing marked the highest total for a Tennessee quarterback since Josh Dobbs surpassed 340-plus passing yards against Vanderbilt in the last game of the 2016 regular season.
Before today, Guarantano was averaging just 160.2 passing yards per game this season. He more than doubled his average on Saturday.
Defense Came to Play in the Second Half
Tennessee’s defense got gashed several times in the first half of Saturday’s game, but they made adjustments in the second half and turned the game around.
The Vols held Auburn to 3.9 yards per play in the second half and 160 total yards after giving up 288 yards to the Tigers in the first half and allowing 7.4 yards per play. Tennessee most notably had a strip sack that wound up being recovered by Alontae Taylor and returned for a short score that kept momentum on UT’s side.
After converting five of their seven third down attempts in the first half, Auburn managed to convert only four of their nine attempts on third down in the second half.
Saturday won’t be the best defensive performance you’ve ever seen by a UT defense, but the second half was one of the better efforts the Vols have put forth in several years.
Ending Tons of Streaks
The Vols put to bed a multitude of losing streaks on Saturday.
The most talked about streak was Tennessee’s 11-game SEC losing streak they faced coming into their contest with Auburn. But that wasn’t the only losing streak they ended against the Tigers. Tennessee also stopped a six-game skid against Auburn that dated back to 1999, a six-game losing streak to ranked opponents, and a 15-game losing streak to SEC West teams that dated back to 2010.
Tennessee still faces plenty of losing streaks early in Jeremy Pruitt’s tenure. But they were able to stop several of them on Saturday.
There’s been lots of talk about Jeremy Pruitt and his staff trying to establish a culture at Tennessee. Now many have to wonder if that culture is finally starting to establish itself.
The Vols could’ve wilted and let Auburn run past them several times on Saturday, but Tennessee never faltered and kept the game close. Then, they capitalized when the Tigers blinked, and the Vols were able to pull away a victory.
This win won’t propel Tennessee to victory over Alabama next week, but it very well could help them for their pivotal stretch run in November. Suddenly, Tennessee’s bowl hopes don’t look dead after all.