Tennessee is coming off back-to-back nightmare outings to begin Year 2 under Jeremy Pruitt.
The Vols started off the season with an embarrassing loss to Georgia State in a game where they didn’t play with effort. They followed that up with a meltdown against BYU in regulation that resulted in a loss in double overtime. Now, the have begun a season 0-2 for the first time since 1988.
Jeremy Pruitt’s squad welcomes Tennessee-Chattanooga to Knoxville this weekend for a noon kick-off on the SEC Network. The goal every week is to pick up a win, but that’s especially true for the Vols after what happened against Georgia State and BYU. But against an FCS opponent that Tennessee should beat up on, these are the boxes the Vols need to check in order to improve heading into the Florida game next week.
Here are the five things (other than a win) we need to see from the Vols on Saturday.
Play With Effort
It sounds so simple, but nothing is simple with this Tennessee football program at the moment.
Tennessee’s performance in Week 1 was inexcusable. Sure, the Vols lost to a Sun Belt team who had never beaten a Power Five opponent, but the reason they lost was simply because of effort. Tennessee made plenty of football mistakes, but if it had played with heart and put up a better fight, the Vols still win that game.
But UT didn’t do that, and because of it, they’re going to have to pull off a miracle in order to make a bowl game. It’s going to have to be a complete turnaround for the Vols to earn six wins this season.
The effort from UT was infinitely better against BYU last week, but let’s see how the team plays in an environment that won’t touch last week’s.
If Tennessee doesn’t simply roll its helmet onto the field and expect to win, that’s a positive sign for the rest of the season.
Jim Chaney has to find a way to build confidence in the offense this week — particularly Jarrett Guarantano.
Marquez Callaway admitted earlier this week that the confidence of the offense is low right now. It all points back to the play of Tennessee’s starting quarterback. Guarantano has the ability to help the Vols win games, but right now, it’s all mental.
For Guarantano, it’s been too many pre-snap mistakes, too much staring the wide receiver down, too many mistakes going through his progressions, too many forced passes into double, triple, and quadruple coverage, and not enough confidence.
It’s all mental.
Sure, it would be nice for one of the freshmen to receive meaningful snaps this weekend. That’s another box Tennessee must check off in this game. But more important than JT Shrout or Brian Maurer playing against the Mocs is building Guarantano and the offense’s confidence back up.
No matter the result this week, Guarantano is going to be the starter in Gainesville next weekend. Fans may not like it, but that’s the reality. He gives Tennessee the best chance to win at the moment.
The Vols need his confidence to be much higher than it currently is, and they need him to play mistake-free football if they’re going to pull off the upset in the Swamp. It starts against UTC by building his confidence back up. That likely requires him staying in the game longer than you’d like against an FCS opponent, but if that’s what it’s going to take to get him going, you have to do it.
Dominate the Line of Scrimmage
The reason Tennessee has struggled in recent years against inferior opponents is because of its inability to dominate the line of scrimmage.
Tennessee was much better along the offensive line against BYU last Saturday, helping Ty Chandler and Eric Gray rush for 242 yards. But the O-line still struggled at times. That can’t happen against a team like UTC. Regardless of the current state of Tennessee football, Chaney’s offense should be able to line up and run the football down their throats.
The same goes for pass protection. One thing you can’t question about Guarantano is his toughness. Too many times in games over his career he’s been beat up because of the lack of protection up front. That can’t happen against an FCS opponent. Guarantano should have all day to throw and not have to pick himself up off the ground on multiple occasions.
UT’s offensive line needs to be clicking on all cylinders as the Vols head to Florida next week. A clean performance against UTC is the first step in doing so.
The same goes for the defensive line. Tennessee tallied four sacks against BYU, but they struggled to generate a pass-rush against Georgia State and didn’t do so consistently after the first half against the Cougars.
In order to beat Florida, the Vols will need to generate a pass-rush that flusters Feleipe Franks. Against UTC, they should have no problem doing so — at least theoretically.
Force Multiple Turnovers
Generating pressure ties into forcing turnovers — an area Tennessee has failed at to begin the season. Teams tend to force turnovers when they generate pressure, but the Vols haven’t done either to begin the season.
Tennessee had one takeaway — a fumble recovery on a sack — against Georgia State, and then they didn’t force a single turnover against BYU. Against UTC, the opportunity to force turnovers will present itself, but only if Tennessee can generate pressure.
As much as it falls on the defensive line and edge rushers to generate pressure, the secondary has to make sure they’re in position to take advantage of UTC’s mistakes when the opportunities present themselves. It sounds simple, but Tennessee has struggled to line up correctly through two games this year.
Assuming he plays, having Bryce Thompson back in the secondary should help dramatically. Thompson was a turnover-forcing machine last season, picking off three passes and forcing a fumble as a true freshman.
These objectives all tie into next week’s match-up with Florida. If the Vols are going to pull off the upset, Guarantano has to play with confidence, and Tennessee must fluster Feleipe Franks.
It all starts this week against Tennessee-Chattanooga. Should Guarantano play well, and should Tennessee’s defense force turnovers off of pressure, I like the Vols’ chances of potentially threatening Florida next Saturday.