Column: Vols’ 2019 Season Depends on Health of Brian Maurer

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    Photo by Jake Nichols/RTI

    Vol fans should be feeling optimistic and hopeful for Tennessee’s chances of putting together a strong run to end the season after the way the Vols have played the last two weeks. Even with all the frustrations and anger caused by the officiating and blown opportunities in Tennessee’s loss to No. 1 Alabama on Saturday, there were plenty of positive takeaways from the game.

    So why aren’t more Vol fans feeling that optimism? Because of the big question mark around UT’s quarterback position.

    True freshman Brian Maurer started Saturday’s contest against Alabama despite sustaining a concussion in the second quarter of Tennessee’s 20-10 win over Mississippi State the prior week. But again, Maurer was unable to finish a start. In Saturday’s game against the Tide, Maurer took another hit to the head in the first quarter. The freshman was shoved to the ground after throwing a completion to Jauan Jennings, and his head banged into the back of his own lineman’s leg.

    After that, redshirt junior Jarrett Guarantano took over on offense. But unlike in the Mississippi State game when he played well in relief of Maurer, Guarantano was sporadic and made plays to lose the game.

    Guarantano missed wide open receivers on at least three throws, including overthrowing Jauan Jennings as he headed to the end zone after a brilliant double move. Then, of course, came the most infamous play of the game: Guarantano’s fumble at the goal line on fourth down.

    Vol fans know all about how that play went down. There’s no need to rehash that here other than to say it was a microcosm of Guarantano’s 2019 season thus far.

    It’s precisely because of those plays in the Alabama game — and Guarantano’s play all season with a few exceptions here and there — why Vol fans don’t feel very hopeful about the Vols’ chances of turning the season around over the final month-plus despite the obvious signs of improvement at nearly every other position.

    If Brian Maurer has to miss a game or two down the stretch because of concussions or some other health issue, Tennessee’s offense just won’t be the same. Maurer has yet to finish a game he’s started, getting knocked out in the fourth quarter of his first start against Georgia, being taken out after a concussion in the second quarter in his second start, and being held out after another hit to the head in the first quarter of his third start.

    It doesn’t take an expert analyst to realize Tennessee’s offense looks better, tends to execute more efficiently, and just runs with more confidence with Maurer at the helm. Don’t believe me there? Then take a look at the numbers.

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    Against Power Five opponents this season (counting BYU), Guarantano has been the primary quarterback on 33 non-kneel down possessions for the Vols. Those 33 drives have ended in a touchdown only three times, and only one of Guarantano’s 20 drives as UT’s quarterback against SEC teams this season has resulted in a touchdown. The Vols have kicked a field goal on eight of Guarantatno’s 33 drives as quarterback, and he’s been responsible for four turnovers in those 33 drives.

    In total, only nine percent of Guarantano’s drives as the Vols’ quarterback have ended in touchdowns while 24.2 percent — almost one-fourth — have resulted in a field goal.

    For Maurer, there have been more turnovers, but he’s also helped Tennessee pick up more touchdowns in his more limited amount of snaps.

    Maurer has guided Tennessee’s offense on 21 drives from start to finish against SEC opponents this season (he didn’t play against BYU). Of those 21 possessions, four of them ended with a touchdown, and only one resulted in a field goal. Six of Maurer’s 21 drives at quarterback have ended in him committing a turnover.

    The true freshman has been more boom-or-bust for the Vols, but he’s helped Tennessee cap off drives with a touchdown more than Guarantano in 12 fewer overall possessions. The Vols’ offense has scored a touchdown 19.1 percent of the time Maurer has led a drive, though 28.6 percent of his drives have ended in a turnover, too.

    Overall, Tennessee’s offense has generated 45 points in 33 drives with Guarantano at quarterback in five contests against SEC opponents and BYU. That’s good for 1.36 points per drive. With Maurer at QB, the Vols’ offense has totaled 31 points in 21 drives, which is 1.48 points a drive.

    Two of Tennessee’s best offensive performances of the season came in games where Maurer started at quarterback and played about half the game. The Vols’ offense averaged 5.53 yards a play against Georgia, which is the second-best average in a game against an SEC or Independent opponent this season. Against Mississippi State, the Vols had a 6.16 yard per play average, their best of the season against an FBS team. Maurer played in all but one drive against Georgia, and he led the offense in four of UT’s 10 possessions against Mississippi State.

    With Guarantano leading the offense, Tennessee hasn’t eclipsed the 5.5 yard per play mark in any game against a Power Five equivalent opponent. The Vols’ best performance against an SEC team or Independent with Guarantano playing the vast majority of the snaps came against BYU when UT averaged 5.43 yards a play.

    The rest of Tennessee’s schedule is full of winnable games. The Vols will likely be underdogs in two or three of their five remaining games, but they have a legitimate shot of winning all five if Maurer is at the helm of the offense. ESPN’s FPI has Tennessee favored against Vanderbilt and UAB, and the Vols’ have a good shot of beating Kentucky (40.2 percent) and South Carolina (38.8 percent) despite being slight underdogs at the moment.

    Those chances for victory take a big hit if Maurer isn’t the quarterback calling the plays for Tennessee. Saturday proved once and for all that the Vols’ hopes of success this season are firmly tied to the health of their true freshman quarterback, and the Vols desperately need him to stay on the field.

    Nathanael Rutherford is the managing editor and social media manager for Rocky Top Insider. Nathanael graduated from the University of Tennessee and cultivated a passion for the Vols while growing up in Knoxville a mere 10 minutes from Neyland Stadium. He's been a part of the RTI team since November of 2015 and has been the editor of RTI since June of 2017. If he's not talking or writing about Tennessee athletics, he's probably talking about Star Wars.