Tennessee is trying to figure out where its season will go from here after losing 40-14 to West Virginia in Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday.
While the Vols weren’t expected to win, they entered the game believing they could at least put a scare into the Mountaineers. Will Grier’s 429 passing yards and five touchdowns for West Virginia made sure that didn’t happen.
So what’s next for Tennessee? The Vols have two games coming up that they should win with ease — home against East Tennessee State and UTEP — before Florida comes to Knoxville on Sept. 22.
Tennessee showed reasons to be both concerned and optimistic about the direction this season will go.
With the Vols coming off a loss, let’s start by looking at reasons to worry.
Tennessee has issues up front
On the very first play from scrimmage, West Virginia defensive lineman Kenny Bigelow busted through Tennessee’s offensive line and hit quarterback Jarrett Guarantano.
The Vols struggled to protect Guarantano the entire game, and inconsistent line play resulted in only 3.4 yards per rush as a team.
Different year, same conversation about Tennessee’s offensive line issues.
Tennessee’s defensive line wasn’t much better. The Vols didn’t pressure Grier, which gave him time to dissect their young secondary.
Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt has an experienced front seven on defense –all seven starters are juniors and seniors — but if they can’t be more disruptive, the Vols are going to give up a lot of passing yards and points this season.
Tennessee’s issues up front make you wonder…
Where is the depth?
Tennessee can’t rely on its starters up front to play so many snaps all season.
Freshmen and sophomores will need to spell the defensive line. With or without injuries, the Vols have to be concerned with how many players they can count on. Right now, there aren’t many.
Playing ETSU and UTEP should allow more players to see the field the next two weeks. If more guys aren’t ready to go against Florida, that will be a troubling sign for the rest of the season.
And the rest of the season beyond the Florida game is a concern because…
Tennessee’s SEC schedule is brutal
Following the Florida game, Tennessee has to play at Georgia, at Auburn, home against Alabama and at South Carolina.
The Vols are expected to be two-touchdown underdogs in all of those games. If Tennessee doesn’t find more depth, it’s difficult to believe it can hold up physically before November arrives.
Those are also teams that can put up some points. The five SEC teams listed above scored an average of 43.8 points in their season openers on Saturday.
Can Tennessee’s offense improve enough to compete with its SEC opponents? It’s certainly possible. There are reasons to be optimistic there, starting with…
The Vols’ skill talent
Sophomore running back Tim Jordan rushed 20 times for 118 yards and a touchdown on Saturday. He led the nation with his 12 missed tackles forced on the ground, according to Pro Football Focus.
Wide receiver Marquez Callaway caught seven of his eight targets, and Jauan Jennings, who’s back after missing almost all of the 2017 season due to injury, caught both of his targets and should become a bigger part of the offense as the season progresses.
Guarantano was 19-of-25 passing with a touchdown and no interceptions (or glaring mistakes). He was impressive considering the lack of protection.
Jordan’s performance was encouraging because of the aggressive way he ran.
“It fires me up,” offensive lineman Trey Smith said. “It tells me I need to do my job better.”
Which tells me…
Tennessee’s players have fight in them
There were probably players who threw in the towel at some point last season as the Vols were on their way to a 4-8 season and a winless SEC record.
The Vols have renewed energy and, despite the result of the West Virginia game, the belief that they will improve.
There’s no data to add to this reason for optimism, but you want to know your team will continue to give effort when improvement is clearly needed.
That leads to one more reason for optimism…
Just look at the past
Tennessee had a 2-6 record in 2010 when Derek Dooley was in his first season as head coach.
That team continued to play hard, and thanks to a weaker schedule in November, won out and finished with six wins.
The 2013 team, led by first-year coach Butch Jones, lost its third game of the season at Oregon 59-14. The following week, Tennessee lost by 14 points at Florida.
Things looked bleak for Tennessee, but the Vols continued to fight.
They lost to Georgia in overtime two weeks later before upsetting Steve Spurrier’s 11-win South Carolina team.
Tennessee finished the 2013 season with a 5-7 record, but it wasn’t until a close loss to Vanderbilt in November when Tennessee was eliminated from bowl contention.
Tennessee’s opening loss to West Virginia was disappointing, but it was expected.
The Vols’ goal hasn’t changed. Getting to six wins would still be a success.