No. 14 Tennessee has a pivotal matchup with No. 3 Georgia in Athens this weekend.
The game provides a chance for Jeremy Pruitt to announce his arrival as a head coach in the SEC. It also provides an opportunity for Tennessee football to announce its return to relevance in the SEC East.
All eyes will be on the matchup between Tennessee’s offensive line and Georgia’s defensive front seven. But what will be Tennessee’s x-factor that determines whether the Vols win or lose? ESPN College Football analyst Kirk Herbstreit provided an answer on the recent episode of the CFB Podcast with Herbie, Pollack & Negandhi.
“I think any time you’ve got a quarterback that’s played in a lot of games, that’s been with them for I don’t know how many years, it’s just been erratic — the decision making, the consistency, the belief — we can say whatever we want, but teams really respond when they believe their quarterback can make plays and can make good decisions,” Herbstreit said. “We were just talking about Georgia. The difference between having a young guy like (redshirt freshman quarterback D’Wan) Mathis, who’s trying to find his way, vs. a guy like (fourth-year junior Stetson) Bennett — it just made the entire team play better because they believe in what they’re doing with that quarterback.
“And I think, with Tennessee, I don’t want to sit here and say that Guarantano is all of a sudden arrived and he’s ready to be — he was a five-star campus prospect when he came from Jersey and a lot of people wanted to see him be the kind of all-conference quarterback three years ago and sometimes it doesn’t work out that way. And I think he pressed, he struggled, he tried to live up to the hype. He was immature, in some ways, and I think he’s really been humbled. So he’s a guy I pull for because he didn’t quit. He didn’t go away. He kind of kept fighting and at least he’s got his team now to they’re 2-0.
“They’re going to have their hands full, obviously, Saturday against this Georgia team. But if you’re just a Tennessee fan and looking at the way the ’19 season ended where … they won 7 of 8 and look at the way this season has started, where they’ve won a couple games — you look back from where this program’s been, that’s huge steps in the right direction. So I don’t know if we’re going to jump up and down and say they’ve got what it takes to win Saturday, but I like the fact that they’re playing with more confidence than they’ve played with and I think they got better skill and they’ve got a good offensive line. It’s just with that Georgia defense Saturday, David, you wonder if Guarantano reverts back to making poor decisions, puts the ball in coverage — because they’ll need a balanced attack to have any chance against Georgia.”
ESPN college football analyst David Pollack echoed Herbstreit’s sentiment on the podcast. The former Georgia defensive start also had high praise for Guarantano’s supporting cast.
“Here’s the thing that’s cool, to support what you (Herbstreit) said — it’s the first time I think we won’t be surprised if Tennessee’s banging around with Georgia in the second half,” Pollack said. “Like, we haven’t said that in a while. And it’s Cade Mays up front now, solidifying the tackle spot. And Trey Smith — the offensive line is physical. (Jim) Chaney has an identity as a play caller that he knows what he is, who he is. He’s got to build this thing with the ground game.
“Eric Gray’s a dude. I mean, I think he is going to be really, really good. No. 3 at the running back spot, second season, you could tell he’s got a combination of speed and power and balance and runs really, really hard. But if you watch the Missouri game, Guarantano making plays down the field, receivers out wide with (senior wide receiver Josh) Palmer and (freshman wide receiver Jalin) Hyatt making catches with the ball in coverage. Can they win outside? Last year, obviously, they lose their big-time guy. This year, they’re just trying to find those big-time guys out wide.
“So I think the playmaking ability, the quarterback spot — do I trust him enough? Can he make enough plays on the road against a Georgia defense? That’s where I think if Tennessee was better at that spot, I think you could say, ‘Hey, this team could compete for the SEC East, could beat Florida or Georgia or maybe be in the mix.’ But I don’t know if they’re good enough, chemistry wise, yet with QB-WR to consistently drop back to pass and beat you because Kirk just told you — you ain’t going to line up and pound Georgia. There’s too many defensive linemen they can rotate in and out that look the same for God sakes and, ‘Next freak, you over there, go in.’ I mean, they’ve just got so much strength and size and athleticism up front that it’d be hard to wear ’em down consistently with just the run game. You’re going to have to have balance.”
Guarantano is off to a good start this season as the Vols starting quarterback. Through two games that include wins over South Carolina and Missouri, Guarantano has thrown for 449 yards, two touchdowns and completed 61.1% of his passes. He has yet to throw an interception while adding three rushing touchdowns on the game.
Kickoff between Tennessee and Georgia is scheduled for 3:30 p.m. ET on CBS this Saturday.