Florida’s season continues this weekend as the Gators make a not-so-daunting road trip to Knoxville to play the Tennessee Volunteers. The Gators are a win away from securing their spot in Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game while the Vols are playing for ... pride? Jeremy Pruitt’s job? A future that appears murky at best?
It’s hard to say.
To learn more about this week’s opponent, I asked Terry A. Lambert a few questions about Tennessee’s season and what he expects to see this weekend.
Tennessee came into the season with a good bit of hope, ranked in the preseason top 25 after winning its final six games in 2019. The season started off great with a pair of good wins against South Carolina and Missouri, but things have soured significantly, as the Vols have lost their last five in a row. What went wrong with this team in 2020?
The main culprit has been quarterback play. Jarrett Guarantano is in year five and things just haven’t developed for him at all — he’s the same player he was when he arrived in Knoxville. And thanks to the pandemic, Tennessee really hasn’t been able to develop any of their other options behind him. So Jeremy Pruitt was kind of stuck this year at the position.
No Jauan Jennings or Marquez Callaway at receiver has made things even tougher. Beyond quarterback, the hyped-up offensive line has underperformed in big spots, while the defense has taken a clear step backwards while playing quite a few younger players in the front seven.
There’s really no excuse to be this bad, considering how Pruitt has recruited to this point, which is exactly why he finds himself squarely on the hot seat now.
There have been flashes of success early into the Jeremy Pruitt era, including good success on the recruiting trail, but the program is still reeling on the field, with a disappointing 15-17 record in his two plus seasons at the helm. Is Pruitt the guy to resurrect this program?
I think most Tennessee fans would say no at this point. He had the makings of success entering the season carrying that winning streak in, but at Tennessee, the measuring stick will always be Georgia, Florida and Alabama. He’s failed to compete against those teams — or really even get the Vols any closer. It’s year three and the quarterback position is still a massive issue, while I think we’ve all seen some red flags from Pruitt on the sidelines this season — like falling apart in the second half every single week, for example.
Tennessee has lost commitments from two of their highest ranked prospects in the last week, so it’s safe to say this ship is starting to take on water. Will they make a change this year? It doesn’t feel like they will at this point, but things could change over the next three weeks with Florida, Vandy and Texas A&M left.
Jarrett Guarantano has played a lot of quarterback for the Volunteers the past few seasons, but he’s struggled immensely this season and it appears that freshman Harrison Bailey will play at least part of the time Saturday. Why has Guarantano struggled so much and how much of an improvement is Bailey, if at all?
Guarantano has no confidence, and the staff has no confidence in him. Yet he’s remained the starter through everything, for some reason. Tennessee just needed him to manage games this year and not kill them, and he’s done the exact opposite. Back-breaking turnover after back-breaking turnover, it’s been exhausting. But Pruitt has maintained that Harrison Bailey isn’t ready just yet. However, that appears to have changed this week.
To be clear, there’s no guarantee that Bailey will be any better. But you’re 2-5 in a year that doesn’t matter in terms of eligibility. What are you doing playing a fifth-year senior that’s playing this poorly? That’s been our argument for the entire second half of the season. Hopefully we find out what the kid has on Saturday afternoon. At the very least, just get him some experience that isn’t mop-up duty.
Despite the record and the disappointing results, there’s plenty of talent on this roster. Who are a few players who could make things difficult for Florida?
Running back Eric Gray is the best player not named Trey Smith on offense. He’s small, but forces a ridiculous amount of missed tackles. Look for Tennessee to work him a lot in the running game and short passing game.
Linebacker Henry To’o To’o is probably the best player on the team. He’s the quarterback of the defense and has kept the Tennessee defense’s head above water at times this season.
Wide receiver Jalin Hyatt brings legitimate 4.3 speed to the table and has slowly been worked into the offense this year as a freshman. If Tennessee goes deep, look for Hyatt to be the one stretching the field.
Finally, what do you expect to see on Saturday, and do you have a prediction?
It’s gonna be ugly, eventually. Maybe the Vols hang around for a half, as they typically do, but Tennessee won’t be able to keep up for four quarters. All we really want to see as a fanbase here is Harrison Bailey, for better or for worse.
Florida 42, Tennessee 20,
Thanks again to Terry for helping out with this Q&A and to hear more from him and Rocky Top Talk, follow them on Twitter: @TLambertTN and @RockyTopTalk