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SEC Preview: Tennessee

By Matt Smith
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Matt Smith previews the 2020 Tennessee Volunteers.

Head Coach: Jeremy Pruitt; third season at Tennessee and overall (13-12 overall, 7-9 SEC)
Offensive Coordinator: Jim Chaney (second season)
Defensive Coordinator: Derrick Ansley (second season)
2019 Recap: 8-5 (5-3 SEC); defeated Indiana in Gator Bowl
After a 2018 season that saw Tennessee play its worst football of the season in the final two games, losses to Missouri and Vanderbilt, the Volunteers turned the tables in 2019 by surging from 1-4 to 8-5. There wasn’t a true signature win, but a six-game winning streak to close the season was major progress for a program that didn’t even win six games in a season five times during the 2010s. Offensive skill positions and a very talented back seven of the defense carried the way, while the two lines of scrimmage showed gradual improvement throughout the year and set the bar high for 2020. Quarterback play was subpar, particularly in the red zone, but the Vols coaching staff showed its chops in the team’s turnaround after horrible losses to Georgia State and BYU to start the season.

2020 Schedule
Sept. 26 – at South Carolina (7:30 p.m. ET, SEC Network)
Oct. 3 – MISSOURI (Noon ET, SEC Network)
Oct. 10 – at Georgia
Oct. 17 – KENTUCKY
Oct. 24 – ALABAMA
Oct. 31 – Idle
Nov. 7 – at Arkansas
Nov. 14 – TEXAS A&M
Nov. 21 – at Auburn
Nov. 28 – at Vanderbilt
Dec. 5 – FLORIDA

Under Center
Jarrett Guarantano is back for a fifth season after taking hold of the position late in a 2019 season that saw him shuffle in and out of the lineup along with freshmen J.T. Shrout and Brian Maurer. Top recruit Harrison Bailey joins the mix this season as well. Guarantano fell just short of a 60-percent completion percentage last season, but neither Maurer nor Shrout could even crack 50 percent.

The red zone was the Vols’ biggest problem last season. They managed a touchdown in less than half of their trips inside the opposing 20-yard line. That’s really, really bad, with the national average hovering around 62 percent. A successful season is going to require at least one big upset, and field goals aren’t going to accomplish that. Guarantano has been through a lot at Tennessee and keeps getting off the mat. He’s a tough kid, but the mental hurdle of finishing drives has to be solved for this program to continue to elevate.

In The Trenches
It’s almost a complete 180-degree turn from where Tennessee was a year ago along the line of scrimmage. The Volunteers were looking at starting two true freshmen offensive linemen heading into the 2019 season, while the defensive line had no depth whatsoever. Now, Tennessee brings back all five offensive line starters, led by senior guard Trey Smith. Those two freshmen from a year ago, Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright are now sophomores, and should bookend the line. Georgia transfer Cade Mays is still fighting for immediate eligibility, and he could serve as a swing player as a sixth lineman at both guard and tackle if he can play.

The defensive front found some pieces throughout last season with Michigan transfer Aubrey Solomon holding his own and veteran Darel Middleton helping steady the team’s biggest question mark. The run defense was effective last season, aided by a strong group of linebackers. Sophomore Henry To’o To’o has all-SEC potential, while Quavaris Crouch and Kivon Bennett appear poised for breakout seasons as they become full-time starters. Bennett needs to be a pass rush presence to help replace Darrell Taylor, who led the team with 8.5 sacks in 2019.

On The Edge
Wide receiver takes a step back without Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway, but the running back tandem of senior Ty Chandler and sophomore Eric Gray could be one of the SEC’s best duos. Chandler isn’t a star, but he’s become a productive back when part of a complementary tandem. Gray topped 100 carries as a freshman and displayed his big-play potential with four runs of 60 yards or longer. Josh Palmer is the top option at wide receiver, but the Vols need senior Brandon Johnson, who redshirted last season, to become a player who can catch 40 passes.

The secondary is starting to look more like what Jeremy Pruitt’s Alabama and Georgia units did. Juniors Bruce Thompson and Alontae Taylor are a solid cornerback duo. Tennessee must replace Nigel Warrior at safety, but there are three options for two positions, all of whom saw significant action last season. This group will be a strength, but it will depend on how the safety position comes together as to whether it’s a moderate strength or a major one.

Ranking The Units
1.   Offensive Line
2.   Running Backs
3.   Linebackers
4.   Defensive Backs
5.   Defensive Line
6.   Quarterbacks
7.   Receivers

Schedule Analysis
Tennessee is one of two SEC East teams to play three of the top four teams in the SEC West. The two toughest stretches come in mid-October with Georgia, Kentucky and Alabama in three consecutive weeks, and in mid-November when Texas A&M and Auburn appear as a nasty back-to-back. The opener at South Carolina is massive for both teams. The Gamecocks need it badly, but they’re a team that the Vols need to beat if they want to be mentioned with the SEC bluebloods this season. Getting Florida in December in Knoxville is very intriguing for a rivalry that has almost been exclusively played in September since becoming an annual series three decades ago.

Season Prediction
It’ll be a bit of a rollercoaster for the Vols. A Week 1 loss will dampen spirits on Rocky Top, but Pruitt showed last year he can keep a struggling team together. That will pay off in late October, when Tennessee at long last ends a 13-game losing streak to Alabama with a huge upset in Knoxville. Losses to Texas A&M and Auburn will squash some momentum, but the season will end on a high note with another streak-busting rivalry win over Florida.

Record: 6-4
CFP Ranking: 18

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.