Written by RTI contributor Spencer Morrell
Tennessee’s 2019 football season could best be described as having two distinct parts. The first part concluded with a loss to Alabama on October 19, and the second part began with a must-win game against South Carolina on Oct. 26. The Vols lugged a 2-5 record into last year’s South Carolina game, as well as a difficult quarterback situation.
In the loss to Alabama the week prior, freshman quarterback Brian Maurer had been knocked out the game with a concussion. It led to redshirt junior Jarrett Guarantano taking over signal-calling duties. Guarantano began the 2019 season as the starter, but he struggled mightily throughout the first half of the season which led to him being benched in favor of Maurer. Guarantano then committed a critical late-game fumble in the loss to Alabama, which again led to his benching. Redshirt freshman J.T. Shrout would finish out the game.
As a result, Tennessee came into the South Carolina game with uncertainty swirling around their quarterback room. Maurer was unavailable to play due to his concussion, and Guarantano seemed an unreliable option. Shrout was available, but the young quarterback’s accuracy and consistency had been a major issue up to that point in the season. This left a massive question unanswered. Who was going to take the first snap at quarterback? The answer: Jauan Jennings.
Tennessee’s unquestioned senior leader took the first snap that afternoon out of the wildcat formation. This was done perhaps to settle the team and set the tone for the game. Jennings was the leader of the team and he would show it that evening. Shrout then took over on the third snap of the game and played for most of the first quarter. The Vols’ offense was languid with Shrout at the helm, and he was pulled from the game late in the first quarter. Guarantano was again thrust into the game just as he had been the week prior. This time the result would be different.
Guarantano went on to throw for 229 yards and two touchdowns. Jennings was the target for most those passes and both touchdowns. Jennings would finish the day with a career-high 174 receiving yards in addition to his two touchdowns. One of those touchdowns turned out to be the turning point not only in the game but in Tennessee’s season.
Midway through the third quarter Tennessee trailed 21-17. The offense had marched down inside the South Carolina 20-yard line but faced a 3rd and 14 from the 19. It was an obvious passing situation and South Carolina pinned their ears back on a blitz. Guarantano stood in the pocket as long as he could as South Carolina linebacker T.J. Brunson bore down on him. Guarantano cut a pass loose towards the endzone just as he took a massive hit from the arriving blitz. It was a hit that broke a bone in Guarantano’s left wrist. The pass was a beauty that Jennings caught in the endzone right before he also took a blistering shot from a South Carolina defensive back. Jennings somehow held onto the ball, and Tennessee took the lead. It was a lead they would not relinquish as the defense would shut out South Carolina in the second half. The Vols would go on to defeat the Gamecocks 41-21, earning their third win of the season.
That play was the turning point of the game, and as it turned out the turning point of the season. It exhibited the toughness that would become the trademark of that Vols team moving forward.
Guarantano’s broken left wrist had a screw placed in it during surgery the day after the South Carolina game. Six days later he was the starting quarterback for Tennessee in a homecoming victory over UAB. Another display of toughness for a team that desperately needed it. This was the team’s fourth win of the season as six wins and bowl eligibility, once thought impossible, now became the goal for the Vols.
The Vols carried that toughness with them to Kentucky, and it helped them secure their fifth victory of the year with a fourth quarter goal-line stand against the Cats. The Vols then traveled to a bitterly cold Faurot Field in late November to face Missouri in a bid for their sixth win and bowl eligibility. Their toughness would earn them their coveted sixth win as Guarantano would throw for a career-high 415 yards in the biting cold and with a screw in his left wrist.
The next week, during a massive rainstorm, Tennessee’s offensive line would push Vanderbilt all over Shields-Watkins Field on the way to securing its seventh victory by way of a bruising rushing attack. The Volunteers would go on to win eight games after a come from behind win in the Gator Bowl versus Indiana, ending the season on a six-game winning streak. The longest winning streak in the nation behind national champion LSU.
The 2019 South Carolina game changed the trajectory of Tennessee’s season, and quite possibly the trajectory of the program. The Vols’ mentality seems to have shifted for the better. After a woeful start to the year, Tennessee had to turn their season around, and impressively they managed to do so.
The Vols faced mountains of adversity before last year’s game against the Gamecocks, and this year has been no different as the offseason has been a struggle for nearly every team. Last year, Tennessee’s win over South Carolina set them on a path to success for the rest of the season. That same possibility remains this year.
A win over South Carolina on Saturday would send the Vols into the all-SEC gauntlet with confidence. This year’s meeting with South Carolina is not the turning point as it was last season, rather it is the starting point. A different date on the schedule, but just as important. Instead of a chance to turn the season around it is a chance to start the season right. A chance for the Volunteers to set the tone for their season. A season that is going to be one of the toughest they have ever played.