Tennessee traveled to Athens, Ga. on Saturday, September 29 for its first true road game of the season. The Vols lost to No. 2 Georgia, 38-12. Here are 10 things that stood out:
1.) Something to build on. There are no moral victories in college football. A loss will not get you any closer to bowl eligibility, and it won’t often persuade 5-star recruits to commit to your school.
But for the first time this season, UT fans can walk away from this game thinking, “Ya know what? There’s something here we can build on.”
Tennessee’s coaches have said it in games before this one. Even after last week’s horrific, 47-21 loss to a bad Florida team, Vols head coach Jeremy Pruitt said he liked the fire he saw in his players’ eyes late in the game. But this was the first time the average fan has been able to see it.
The Vols entered this game as a 31-point underdog. And that line seemed about right. But it goes without saying that the game was closer than the 38-12 score indicated. If you didn’t watch the game, you might look at that score and say, “Hmm. Tennessee kept it a little closer than I expected.” Georgia was never really threatened by Tennessee, but this was a close game throughout. With 5 minutes to play, UT was down 24-12 and UGA put the ball on the ground. If Tennessee recovers that fumble . . .
2.) Finally some pressure. One of Tennessee’s biggest shortcomings this season has been getting pressure on the quarterback. It cost the Vols dearly against West Virginia and Heisman hopeful Will Grier, and it cost the Vols against Florida. Even against cupcakes ETSU and UTEP, Tennessee wasn’t able to consistently pressure the quarterback.
Today, against one of the SEC’s best offensive lines, the Vols’ defensive front was finally able to begin getting pressure on the quarterback. Jake Fromm was hurried, Jake Fromm was sacked, and Jake Fromm had some overthrows in the first half that can probably be attributed to that pressure.
It wasn’t all good for Tennessee’s defensive front. There was still too much sloppy tackling technique; too many yards after contact for Georgia’s runningbacks (more on that in a moment). But it was a big step in the right direction.
3.) Secondary progress continues. Georgia’s receivers had way too much cushion way too often, something that often happens when opposing secondaries don’t have confidence in themselves. And there were still some blown coverages. But, all in all, Tennessee’s young secondary is light years ahead of where it was against West Virginia.
In fact, Georgia completed 17 of 24 passes for 190 yards. Not a bad day, by any means, but it certainly wasn’t a banner day, either. In fact, UGA’s passing game wasn’t far off, statistically, from Tennessee’s. The Vols completed 13 of 21 for 143, averaging 11.0 yards per completion to Georgia’s 11.2 yards per completion.
Grier and the Mountaineers were the best passing attack that Tennessee will face this season. Georgia isn’t the second-best, but the Bulldogs are the second-best to this point in the season. The continued improvement is a positive, and if you’re looking for another reason for optimism, defensive backs are Jeremy Pruitt’s position group. It’s what he knows best.
4.) Still too much in the run game. For whatever Georgia couldn’t get through the air, the Bulldogs were able to get on the ground. UGA came in to Saturday’s game with the nation’s 17th-ranked rushing attack, averaging 250 yards per game. They got just that against the Vols — 251 yards and 5.0 yards per carry.
Disheartening was Georgia’s fourth quarter drive to salt the game away. Leading 24-12, the Bulldogs took possession at their 25-yard-line with 11:10 remaining. They marched 75 yards in 13 plays, chewing 7:39 off the clock. It was by far their best drive of the game, and only one play was a pass play. UGA imposed its will on Tennessee’s defense when it mattered most.
With that said, there were also signs of promise for the Vols. Tennessee played very well against the run in the third quarter and early in the fourth quarter. In fact, it would not be unfair to go as far as to say that UT shut down Georgia’s rushing attack during that part of the game.
5.) The ball bounces funny. I can’t take credit for this math, someone else did it. But consider this: Georgia had four fumbles, and recovered all of them. The Bulldogs also threw two would-be/should-be interceptions, one of which was dropped by Nigel Warrior and one of which was negated by an offsides penalty. Additionally, Tennessee fumbled the ball once, and lost it. There were seven potential turnovers in the game, and all seven plays went Georgia’s way. The odds of that happening? 128:1.
This comes after Tennessee turned the ball over six times in a rout at the hands of Florida. The turnovers were a major part of the storyline in that game.
Now, you can obviously argue that Tennessee has to do a better job of capitalizing on opportunities for take-aways, while limiting their own mistakes. But sometimes the ball just bounces funny. On the first possession of the game, Jake Fromm is sacked on a third-and-nine from the UT 31 and fumbles the ball. It bounces right into the hands of UGA’s Isaac Nauta, who takes it 40 yards for a touchdown. Sometimes you just wonder if your team is cursed.
With that said, Tennessee ranks 108th in the nation in turnover margin. Given just how inept the Vols’ offense is, UT really needs to start capitalizing on some opportunities defensively to give its offense a short field to work with. Once again, the Vols are left wondering what might’ve been.
6.) Darrell Taylor’s career day. Fourth-year junior Darrell Taylor wasn’t even a starter in Tennessee’s defense when the Vols opened the season against West Virginia. On a day like today, you wonder why.
Taylor had a career day. He had three sacks, two of which were sack-fumbles. He also had two additional tackles for loss.
Taylor showed flashes last season, when he started seven of 12 games. UT fans have to hope that today’s showing is a sign of things to come.
7.) Offensive woes. Oh boy. Tennessee’s offense.
The Vols finished with just 209 yards and 11 first downs against Georgia. They were 2 of 10 on third down. The rushing attack went for 66 yards with a 2.6 yards-per-carry average.
Those numbers show that Tennessee hasn’t progressed much from last year, when the Vols had one of the NCAA’s most dreadful offenses.
Statistically, Georgia has the best defense the Vols will face this season. The Bulldogs entered Saturday’s game ranked 12th in the nation in total defense, while Auburn (Tennessee’s next opponent) ranks 22nd and Alabama ranks 24th. But there are those who would argue that Auburn’s defense is better than UGA’s. So don’t expect things to get any easier when Tennessee hits the road for The Plains in two weeks.
And even at No. 12 in the nation in total defense, Georgia gives up an average of almost 290 yards per game.
Tennessee’s offensive line is what it is. UT fans will spend this entire season wondering what would be if the line were just a little bit better. Pass protection did seem to improve against Georgia, but it remained inconsistent.
The Vols’ running backs still seem to struggle to get yards after contact. The Tim Jordan that UT fans saw at West Virginia still hasn’t shown back up, and Pruitt has criticized Jeremy Banks for always falling backwards instead of forward. The backs did improve in pass protection.
Tennessee’s receivers had more difficulty getting separation against UGA’s defensive backs. The Bulldogs’ secondary is one of the best the Vols will face this season, but probably not better than Florida’s on the whole. That was a little disappointing.
Jarrett Guarantano didn’t have a great game.
8.) Vanilla playcalling. First-year offensive coordinator Tyson Helton has become a favorite whipping child for Tennessee fans. It’s hard to not jump on that bandwagon. The Vols’ play calling is vanilla at best, mysterious at worst.
My biggest beef with Helton’s play calling is that he isn’t maximizing Guarantano’s ability. He isn’t putting the quarterback in the best position possible to make plays. It isn’t exactly advanced-level football to move a quarterback outside the pocket when pass protection is an issue. Guarantano isn’t exactly a scrambler, but he’s not the most immobile quarterback in the world, either. Tennessee attempted all of one (1) rollout pass against Georgia, which came late in the first half. I don’t understand that. Roll the QB out of the pocket, buy him some time to find some guys open downfield. Don’t leave him back there like a sitting duck to get his head taken off.
Tennessee is trying to run a power offense with Butch Jones’ finesse-style players. I love power football. And Pruitt and his staff will get players in place that compliment their style . . . eventually. But, in the meantime, Helton needs to improvise. So far, he hasn’t shown an ability to do that.
9.) Not a penalty?! On the Vols’ third quarter scoring drive, Josh Palmer appeared to be the victim of targeting by Georgia’s Richard LeCounte. As Palmer was being stood up on a tackle attempt by UGA’s Monty Rice, LeCounte launched himself at Palmer, making helmet-to-helmet contact.
It was a textbook example of targeting. It wasn’t penalized on the field, which was bad enough. But, inexplicably, the SEC officiating crew chose not to review the play.
Look, I think targeting tends to be over-called. But if you aren’t going to call that, you might as well throw the targeting rule out of the books. And for the officials to not even stop play to review it? Wow. That was quite a blunder.
10.) The streak continues. Tennessee’s program-record SEC losing streak is now at 11 games. That’s all I have the energy to say about that.