By Jimmy Hyams
With three games under Tennessee’s belt, it’s natural to ask: Are the Vols ready for SEC play?
Based on what I’ve seen: No.
It’s not that I think Florida is special, but I see too many warts in Tennessee’s game to think the Vols are ready for the rigors of SEC play.
Before this season, I felt Florida was the most important game of the UT schedule. It would be a litmus test to see if the Vols could handle SEC competition, could end a nine-game losing streak in conference play, to vie for a bowl game.
If Tennessee can’t beat Florida, it likely can’t make a bowl trip.
If Tennessee can gig the Gators, the Vols could be headed to post-season play.
Tennessee’s 24-0 victory Saturday over inept UTEP was a nod toward a nice defensive effort. The Minors gained only 134 yards (39 passing), converted just two of 14 third-down tries and hardly threatened to score.
But the game continued to raise questions about the offensive line. And, for the first time this season, the Vols were sloppy with the ball and undisciplined when it came to penalties. UT had three fumbles and lost two, one on a muffed punt. UT also was assessed eight penalties.
“Are we ready (for the SEC) as a football team?’’ UT coach Jeremy Pruitt said post-game. “When you turn the ball over three times, don’t get any turnovers, make eight penalties, probably 10 — you don’t count the ones they declined — it would be hard to beat anybody in the SEC playing like that.’’
Yes it would. Even Florida, which got whipped by Kentucky last week as the Wildcats thrashed the Gator’s defense for over 300 rushing yards.
To date, Tennessee doesn’t look appreciable better than the team that went 4-8 a year ago.
That doesn’t mean they can’t improve in many areas. But they better do it fast.
Tennessee could easily have beaten UTEP by two more touchdowns, but a fumble at the goal line by Jeremy Banks as he stretched for the end zone, a muffed punt by Marquez Callaway and a touchdown nullified by a chop block proved costly.
Yet, there were some bright spots. Even though the Vols were stuffed at the line of scrimmage too often, they ran for 345 yards with 81 coming on a burst by Ty Chandler on the first play of the second half. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano was efficient, hitting 12 of 16 passes for 168 yards and one score. And Brandon Johnson caught four passes for 51 yards after catching just two balls in the first two games.
Also, UT got a better pass rush, even though the sack total was only two. Minor quarterback Kai Locksley was running for his life much of the game, particularly on third down.
Speaking of third down, UT’s third-down defense has been outstanding with the exception of the second half against West Virginia (which converted 5 of 6 in the final two quarters). Take out the Mountaineers’ second half work and opponents are 4 of 32 on third downs against UT’s defense.
Pruitt credited the defense’s work on first and second down as well as long third-down tries by opponents. UTEP had third-and-at-least-8 on nine occasions. East Tennessee State had third-and-at-least-7 six times.
Another bright spot for Tennessee was a 4-yard touchdown reception by Jauan Jennings, who hadn’t scored since 2016.
If Jennings can find his 2016 form, he could form a strong receiving corps with Callaway, Johnson, Josh Palmer, Jordan Murphy and tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson.
Pruitt made one decision I didn’t agree with.
With 100 seconds left in the first half and the Vols clinging to a 10-0 lead, the team needed a spark to take into the locker room.
Rather than go with his best passer, Guarantano, Pruitt inserted backup Keller Chryst, who handed off three times, then threw an incompletion. The possession was thwarted by a Drew Richmond hold.
Pruitt said he wanted to give Chryst a chance.
But why not give your best quarterback a chance?
Guarantano isn’t exactly a veteran of running a two-minute offense. And he’s a much more accurate passer than Chryst. Guarantano gave you a better chance to be successful, and he needs the experience.
It just made more sense to go with Guarantano in that situation.
Of course, Tennessee shouldn’t have been up only 10-0 at that juncture.
Consider this: Last week, UNLV scored six touchdowns and a field goal on eight first-half possessions against the Miners. UT got a field goal and touchdown on six first-half possessions.
As Pruitt said, it would be hard for the Vols to beat any team the way it played against UTEP. But that doesn’t matter now.
It just matters how you play Saturday against the Gators in what promises to be a pivotal game for the Vols.