By Brian Rice
I’ll start this week with what I tweeted as the final seconds ticked away at Neyland Stadium Saturday afternoon:
Tennessee badly needed to make a statement today. It certainly made one.
— Brian Rice (@briancrice) September 30, 2017
The statement was that the game against UMass last week was not a fluke. It is who the team is right now and it ain’t pretty. I said from the start of the season that I needed to see through the Georgia game to fully assess this team. Butch Jones said afterward that it was all on him and the reaction from fans said that they agreed with the assessment.
I did not, under any circumstances, expect what happened against Georgia to even resemble what happened against UMass. Underperforming in games against bad opponents is not uncommon, particularly not for Tennessee the last three years. Yet, the issues from that game showed up time and time again on Saturday. Poor quarterback play. Lack of overall execution on offense. Not catching the ball on the rare occasions that Quinten Dormady did throw an accurate pass. Ineffective run blocking at times. All of that looked familiar.
Also familiar: the defense had to go out time and time again when the offense could not move the ball. Against UMass, they were up to the challenge. They were against Georgia, for a time. But ultimately the depth, or lack thereof, on defense meant that a good game plan and good execution early on meant nothing.
What it ultimately meant was this:
There's no mincing words. This is easily the worst performance I've ever seen from a Tennessee team in Neyland Stadium.
— Brian Rice (@briancrice) September 30, 2017
My frame of reference dates back to 1989 or so. Lucky for me, I missed out on following the 1988 season and its 0-6 start. I bet John Majors is glad Twitter wasn’t around back then.
I was there the last time Tennessee was shut out, 31-0, by top-ranked Florida in 1994. But that was a season where a rebuilding project was expected. After all, the Vols were replacing a Heisman Trophy finalist at quarterback and had lost starter Jerry Colquitt two weeks earlier. There was a shining light named Manning at the end of the tunnel.
The only home game that comes close to the disappointment of Saturday was the 2003 game against Georgia, a 41-14 mauling that wasn’t as close as the score suggests. That team would win its next six games behind senior QB Casey Clausen.
Looking For The Positives
There were no positives from Saturday.
Well, scratch that, there was one: The fans. Despite some on social media panning it and actively trying to dissuade fans from executing it, Checker Neyland was as glorious as ever, save for the certain group of idiots in the student section wearing blue blazers. Come on guys.
The fans showed up in full force, and they made a difference when the game was still in doubt, however brief of a period that may have been. An interception on the first play? Seconds later every fan of the stadium was on their feet in support of the defense. That helped the Vol D force a three-and-out and a field goal attempt. The fans literally helped to avert disaster a minute in the game.
Tennessee doesn’t have a quarterback. There are a lot of reasons for it, I’m not sure if it’s any one thing more than it is anything else.
I’ve said for a while that I think if Tennessee had won 10 games last year, then it’s quite possible that Butch Jones rolls Jared Guarantano out there to start and just absorb whatever lumps and growing pains come up with a redshirt freshman ready to be the guy for the foreseeable future. Coming off of a 10-win season, a head coach has the equity with the fanbase to do that, particularly when a player that had to do exactly that four years ago just wrapped up a senior year that saw him to play his way into the NFL.
Instead, you are in a situation where you have to play the guy that gives you the best chance to win now, and that wasn’t Guarantano. It is instead Dormady, the steady guy that has played OK in mop-up duty his first two years.
But remember that part about them under performing against that opponents? That fed the problem that Dormady has now. He overthrows guys. He throws off his back foot. When the heat is turned up, his passes either sail or float. Those are things that typically don’t happen in practice, because the bullets are aren’t live. But when you haven’t had many opportunities in those live-action situations, it’s nearly impossible to tell that those bad habits are going to materialize.
And once you see them, it’s not something that gets fixed and practice during the week or even an off week. Those are things that you have to spend the whole spring and summer breaking down and building back up. It’s why you quite often see players make huge jumps from year one to year too. We didn’t see him in nearly enough of those game situations to know that he needed to be broken down.
I will credit the coaching staff for trying to call plays to get him comfortable on Saturday. We found out in the Georgia Tech game that if he gets comfortable, he’s a pretty good quarterback. The problem Saturday was that he couldn’t even complete the passes that were intended to be easy enough for him to get comfortable.
First pass, first play of the game. The call is a simple out to Josh Smith, something that Smith can turn into a 5 to 7 yard gain. Executed well, you then have three downs to make three yards, which is exactly where you want to be. Instead, he not only stares down Smith, he then throws it late and behind him to the point that he can’t even come back to the ball to prevent the easy interception.
I don’t see practices. But in talking to those that do, particularly the parts of practice that aren’t open to the media, he doesn’t do this in practice. That’s why it’s been so maddening for the coaches and why they continue rolling him out there. In practice, he is clearly the better option. But with what we’ve seen in games, the staff has to use the bye week to decide if enough is enough.
So where do we go from here? Watching the rest of Tennessee’s opponents over the weekend was a mixed bag. So let’s take a look at them one by one.
South Carolina: First up, you have two weeks to figure out how to score one more point than a South Carolina team that is struggling to score points. It is a struggle that often involves quarterback Jake Bentley making a couple of plays to keep things close.
Alabama: Moving right along…
Kentucky: Kentucky is uneven it best, but you know they will be extremely motivated to throw punches after the way Tennessee has dominated the last three years. In those games, the Vols have outscored the Wildcats 151-73.
Southern Mississippi: Better than UMass. Better than Indiana State. Worse than everyone else.
LSU: LSU’s loss to Troy was the “hold my beer” of losses in the SEC this year.
Missouri: Hasn’t given up less than 31 points in any game this year, so you figure you’ll score points on them, even if you haven’t against anyone else.
Vanderbilt: Competitive against Florida, but has injuries piling up and not a lot of depth. That could look like a different football team by the time the final weekend of the season arrives.
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