I was sitting in bed staring at my computer screen for five minutes, unsure of exactly what I should be saying about what happened tonight. What a strange game. It felt like the Vols were getting dominated, only they were in the game in the fourth quarter, except no one really believed that JG was going to be able to pull it off, but Tua was out of the game… Just a weird night.
There was a lot I liked about how Tennessee played tonight, and a ton I hated. The same goes for Jeremy Pruitt.
I’ve been saying for the past few weeks that this program was just a quarterback away from being able to compete in conference play week to week. There’s never been more evidence for that being true than tonight. Brian Maurer turned a Tua pick into a touchdown and a tie game and Vol Nation was flying high. Then he got knocked out of the game and it became the JG show again. Gulp.
The most amazing thing about tonight was that Vols were still able to move the ball despite JG’s ineptitude. Guarantano finished 7/16 for 55 yards and missed a wide open Jauan Jennings for a TD in the first half, among other mistakes, which included the 100 yard fumble return on the QB sneak that he apparently checked to at the line of scrimmage, instead of the run play that the coaching staff wanted. The strangest thing about this Tennessee season has been the complete evaporation of JG’s accuracy. He’s never been a great quarterback, but at least the guy could put the ball on receivers last season if he was given time. Now he couldn’t hit General Neyland’s statue if he was standing right beside it.
Of course, it wasn’t all JG’s fault. Tennessee had far too many penalties (they had three on three different offensive lineman on one play), including Darrell Taylor’s stupid personal foul that extended an Alabama drive when the Vols had just forced a three and out. Was that a ticky tack call? Sure. Should Taylor be shoving Tide quarterback Mac Jones down to help himself get up? Of course not. Why give the officials an opportunity to blow the whistle if you don’t have to? Alabama turned that possession into points and extended their lead to 28-13. Get off the field there and it’s 21-13 and you have the ball near midfield after the Tide punt with a chance to tie the game.
And don’t give me the “refs screwed us” crap either. Is it the ref’s fault that Daniel Bituli dove head first at Jerry Jeudy and speared him? I don't like the targeting rule but that one was pretty textbook. Maurer got clocked, but that hit looked like it was within the bounds of the rules. Jauan Jennings maybe got interfered with in the endzone, but every Vol fan would’ve been bellyaching if a Tennessee player got flagged in that situation. The worst thing that happened was that there was a weird stoppage before a Vol trick play that is still unexplained.
The fact is, Tennessee committed dumb penalties all night and got flagged for them, and those mistakes were one of the biggest reasons they lost tonight. They need to stop shooting themselves in the foot with crap like that. Even Pruitt was whining to the Vol Radio Network at halftime about the officiating. Yeah Coach, because that’s exactly what you should be focused on when you’re going into halftime only down 11 against the number 1 team in the country. Not improving upon your own mistakes, but blaming someone else. Tennessee lost by three touchdowns tonight because Alabama was the better team, not because the zebras maybe blew a few calls.
Pruitt was out of control tonight on the sidelines too which was weird and almost unbecoming. Obviously everything culminated with him jerking Guarantano’s facemask after the QB sneak fumble, but he was a maniac for long stretches, blessing out the officials and just overall losing his mind. I’m not going to kill him for the JG facemask thing, but we’re not in the 1954 Junction Boys era of football where you can put your hands on someone because they’re an idiot. If your boss grabbed you like that at your job you’d probably want to fight them. So why was it okay for Pruitt to do it? It wasn't. Of course, you can’t spend large portions of the game bitching at the officials either, and Pruitt seemed almost as preoccupied with that as he did coaching the team. Whatever happened to, “If at first the game – or the breaks – go against you, don’t let up… put on more steam”? The only steam that came from Tennessee tonight was from Pruitt’s ears after he screamed at the officials for the 100th time.
Even with all the negatives, there was a lot to like about how the Vols played tonight. The offensive line wasn’t a train wreck, and the defense had their moments, even if their only chance to stop Tua was to intercept him or knock him out with a high ankle sprain. Again, this team is really just a quarterback away from being 8-4 or 9-3 and building towards what we all want this program to be again. This cupboard was never as bare as everyone made it out to be.
If Tennessee had Florida QB Kyle Trask tonight under center, do you think the score would’ve been 35-13, or do you think the Vols would’ve lost by single digits or maybe even won? The game was there for them tonight, and that was with them getting one of the worst quarterback performances in school history. What if they had above average quarterback play instead?
There’s going to be a lot of pressure on freshman Harrison Bailey next year to be the guy for them at quarterback. I’m not convinced that Brian Maurer can stay healthy, as he’s already been knocked out of the last three games and may not see the field again this year due to his multiple concussions. It’s all on Bailey's shoulders. Does he have it in him? If not, Tennessee will have another year like this one, where they’re underwhelming through seven games and everyone is wondering aloud about Pruitt’s job security.