Tennessee’s season opener in 2018 was a disaster. The 2019 Vols outdid them, though.
Georgia State, a Sun Belt Conference team that went 2-10 last season, came into Neyland Stadium and delivered the Vols one of the program’s most embarrassing losses in school history on Saturday. The Panthers kept within punching distance in the first half, and they turned on the jets in the second half and looked like they were the SEC team and UT was the Sun Belt squad.
The Panthers stunned the Vols 38-30 to start off the 2019 season. For the first time since 2007 and 2008, Tennessee has lost back-to-back season openers, and it’s the first time the Vols have lost a season opener at home since 1983.
Here are our five biggest takeaways from the Vols’ complete blunder to start the 2019 season.
Giving Away Points
From the opening whistle, Tennessee look determined to give Georgia State easy points.
The Vols’ first offensive drive of the game resulted in a fumble that Georgia State recovered at the UT 23 yard-line. The Panthers would need just six plays to capitalize on Tennessee’s mistake, and it gave them an early 7-0 lead.
Later, safety Nigel Warrior was called for a defensive pass interference that kept Georgia State’s drive alive and moved the ball into UT territory. The penalty call was questionable, but it gave the Panthers a fresh set of downs. They, once gain, capitalized off that mistake, scoring a few plays later on a 17-yard pass to tie the game up at 14.
In the fourth quarter, Jarrett Guarantano was blasted on a corner blitz by an untouched Evan Jones, and he fumbled. Georgia State recovered that fumble in Tennessee territory, and on that Panther possession, the Vols had another defensive lapse that further compounded the turnover. Alontae Taylor was flagged for pass interference after UT stopped Georgia State on third down, and that kept the Panthers’ drive going.
Just like before, Georgia State would make the Vols pay for those mistakes.
The Panthers scored a touchdown on that drive, giving them a decisive 35-23 lead. That would be the final nail in the coffin for Tennessee.
The Vols set the tone early, but not in a good way. The costly turnover at the very beginning of the game gave Georgia State confidence early, and inconsistency derailed UT several times. Tennessee lost the turnover battle 3-to-1, and they lost the game because of that.
Losing on the Money Down
Third down was the bane of Tennessee’s existence on defense on Saturday. It wasn’t the greatest down for the Vols on offense, either.
Georgia State was able to get in to several third-and-short situations against Tennessee’s defense on Saturday afternoon, and they converted almost every single time. The Panthers faced nine third downs where they had four yards or less to convert, and they successfully picked up the first down all but one time.
On the day, Georgia State was 10-of-17 on third down.
Tennessee, meanwhile, couldn’t convert on third down on offense to save their lives. The Vols were just 2-of-6 on third down in the second half after finishing the first half with a nearly perfect conversion percentage. Tennessee converted their first four third down attempts, but they would only pick up a first down on four of their next nine third down attempts in the game. Unlike Georgia State, the Vols struggled to pick up short third downs, going just 5-of-8 on third-and-four or shorter.
Jarrett Guarantano was perfect on third downs, completing all seven of his passes for 98 yards, converting three times through the air. On the ground, though, the Vols struggled. Tennessee averaged just 3.8 yards per rush on third down plays.
While not an excuse at all, it looked like the talk of depth issues on Tennessee’s defense was true this offseason. And it was made even worse by two starters missing the game.
Linebacker Daniel Bituli and cornerback Bryce Thompson were both out for Saturday’s game, and two true freshmen started in their places. Bituli was held out after undergoing a minor knee procedure in the last bit of fall camp, and Thompson is currently indefinitely suspended following charges of domestic assault last weekend.
Henry To’oto’o started in place of Bituli, and Warren Burrell started in Thompson’s spot. While both flashed some potential, it became clear pretty quickly that the Vols’ depth was going to be a problem on Saturday.
Tennessee’s lack of depth at all three levels of the defense shouldn’t have caused as many issues as it did against lowly Georgia State on Saturday, but it did. And now Vol fans have to wonder just how bad those depth concerns are going to plague UT the entire season.
On Saturday, mistakes and fatigue cost Tennessee. Next week could lead to more of the same.
A Bunch of Bad Firsts
Tennessee’s implosion on Saturday resulted in many program firsts. None of them were good.
For the Vols, the loss marks the first time Tennessee has lost to a non-Power Five opponent since 2008 when a disheartened Vol squad fell to Wyoming 13-7.
As mentioned above, this loss is the first season-opening loss at home for Tennessee since 1983, when they lost to No. 10 Pittsburgh 13-3 in front of nearly 96,000 fans in Neyland Stadium. It’s also the first time in over a decade the Vols have lost back-to-back season openers. But the 2007 and 2008 teams both lost to Power Five opponents, dropping games to California and UCLA, respectively. The 2018 team lost to a ranked Power Five team in West Virginia, but the 2019 team has no excuse.
Georgia State’s victory over the Vols marked their first win over a Power Five program in school history. The Panthers’ previously were 0-8 against Power Five teams and only got as close as a 24-17 loss to Wisconsin. Every other game the Panthers had played against a Power Five school had been a blowout.
The common theme for the Vols on Saturday was listlessness. From the start of the game, Tennessee didn’t look interested, and that was especially true on defense.
Georgia State gained early momentum, and that allowed them to stay in the game. After that early turnover on the Vols’ first drive of the game, the wind seemed to come out of UT’s sails. Against a team like Georgia State, that shouldn’t happen.
This team showed the tendency to quit when adversity hit last year. Fans hoped that wasn’t going to be true in 2019, but that hasn’t changed as of the first game of the season.