About five weeks ago, Tennessee’s 2019 season was on the brink of total disaster. The Vols were 1-4, and even after showing some life on offense against Georgia in Knoxville, the season looked destined to be one of the worst in UT history.
But to Tennessee’s credit, they never gave up. Now, they’re a win away from bowl eligibility.
After that brutal start to the season that included losses to Georgia State and BYU along with blowout defeats at the hands of Florida and Georgia, Tennessee has turned their season around. The Vols have gone 4-1 in their last five games, and their only loss has been to perennial power Alabama.
The Vols’ latest victory came against a Kentucky team coming off a bye week and a team that had been playing some of their best ball over the last few weeks. The Wildcats had won two of their last three games before taking on Tennessee, and they had done all that with wide receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. leading the offense at quarterback.
But on Saturday, Tennessee fought back after trailing early and gutted out a 17-13 victory. The win pushed the Vols’ record to 5-5 on the year and 3-3 in SEC play.
For Tennessee head coach Jeremy Pruitt, the resolve his team has shown has impressed him. The Vols are a young team, but it’s veteran players like Jauan Jennings, Marquez Callaway, Daniel Bituli, Nigel Warrior, Darrell Taylor, Jarrett Guarantano, and Trey Smith who have been the heart and soul of this year’s team.
Pruitt is hoping Tennessee can finish the season “the right way” for those older Vols.
“For a team that started 1-4, which we did, I think the men on our staff, sticking with the plan, staying together, the players buying in, not flinching, staying together, working hard, believing in what we’re trying to get done, going 4-1 now, the last five, I think it says a lot about them,” Pruitt said to reporters after the Vols’ 17-13 win over Kentucky. “It shows an upward trajectory of where our program is going. We’re really playing six seniors, well seven seniors. We have a young football team. We want to finish this year the right way for our seniors, first of all. But we still got a lot to prove. Got a lot to prove.
“Most importantly, we need to play a complete game, which we have not even come close to yet. And we’ve won four out of the last five. Need to learn how to play a complete game, though.”
Tennessee’s win against Kentucky, in many ways, was a microcosm of their season to this point. The Vols were dominated up front in the first quarter of play, and the Wildcats’ opening possession of the game lasted 17 plays and used up 10 minutes and 18 seconds of game time. The Vols ran six plays in the first quarter, and thanks to a fumbled snap on a punt and that punt being blocked, Kentucky was gifted excellent field position on their second possession and scored another touchdown, going up 13-0 after Darel Middleton blocked the PAT.
That missed PAT would end up being huge, too.
After that ugly start, Tennessee was able to settle in. They got points on the board in the second quarter thanks to a Brent Cimaglia field goal, but even that came with some frustration. The Vols had the ball in the red zone and were about to have a 2nd-and-7 until Trey Smith got whistled for a personal foul after the play. That made it 2nd-and-22, and the Vols couldn’t get a first down and had to settle for Cimaglia’s kick.
Then, the second half happened, and Tennessee reversed their fortunes. Just like they have to this point in the season.
Jarrett Guarantano sparked the offense after Brian Maurer struggled to play consistently in the first half. The redshirt junior completed his first seven pass attempts in the third quarter, tossing 115 yards and two touchdowns to give the Vols a 17-13 lead. The defense, meanwhile, stymied Kentucky’s offense and kept them from scoring any points. Senior linebacker Daniel Bituli amassed 19 tackles, and the most important one came on Kentucky’s fourth down attempt at the goal line with less than 90 seconds to go in the game.
Tennessee’s veterans have played a huge role in the Vols’ turnaround, but even those older players needed to mature and learn from their mistakes. Over the last month-plus, Pruitt has seen his team grow up week after week.
“We had a really good week of practice. I liked the way we warmed up. Just watching our guys, I felt like we were fixing to play really well,” Pruitt stated. “But we made some mental mistakes. You can’t do that. And we gave (Kentucky) extra opportunities. As the game went, we cut down on our mistakes. We didn’t really change our calls, (we) just kind of played a little better.
“But I think our guys are growing up. If you work as hard as we work, you want to take advantage of the opportunities you get, which this was the 10th one. You need to go play. You never know when it’s not going to be there.”
Coming up for Tennessee is a much-needed bye week. Saturday’s game against Kentucky marked the Vols’ sixth-straight game since their last week off, and the upcoming off week couldn’t come at a better time. Tennessee is banged up at various spots across the roster, and the Vols need all the preparation they can get for their final two games.
Tennessee was in this exact same spot a year ago in Jeremy Pruitt’s first season as head coach. The Vols upset No. 12 Kentucky at home, 24-7, to improve to 5-5. Tennessee needed just one more win to earn a berth to a bowl game.
What happened, instead, was two blowout losses to end the year, falling by 33 points to Missouri and 25 points to Vanderbilt.
This year, Tennessee again faces Missouri and Vanderbilt to close out the season with bowl eligibility on the line. While the Tigers and Commodores are far cries from the teams they were last season, Pruitt knows he and his team can’t lose focus and must do better about closing out the season strong.
Tennessee has done a complete 180-degree shift from where they started the season, but that can easily be undone with another late November meltdown. Pruitt is hopeful the upcoming bye week will be instrumental and ensuring that doesn’t happen again this season.
“The reality of it , it means we’re 5-5, which is exactly where we were this time last year,” Pruitt said of Saturday’s win and the Vols bouncing back after their 1-4 start. “We didn’t finish the way we wanted to finish (last season). They know that. We’re going to enjoy this win tonight. We’re going to go back to Knoxville and try to get some guys healed up a little bit, focus on academics for a couple days extra, and start getting ready for Missouri and Vanderbilt and work on fundamentals for us.
“I’m happy for these guys because these guys have hung in here with us. They’ve been tremendous leaders and they’ve stuck together. I’m glad to see them have some success.”