Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, wide receiver Brandon Johnson, and linebacker Quart’e Sapp met with media on Tuesday to discuss the Vols’ loss to South Carolina and their upcoming game against Alabama.
On Saturday afternoon as the game between Tennessee and South Carolina stretched on interminably, a feeling grew among the fan base that was hard to dispel.
Everyone knew how the game would end.
The Volunteers had a productive first half with Jarrett Guarantano settling in during his first collegiate start. He wasn’t as electric as many fans thought he’d be, but he possessed an ability that had been sorely lacking in the first five games. Escapability. As the offensive line collapsed on him again and again, the young QB found a way to extend drives, to get first downs, and open up what has been a lackluster offensive team.
Until the Vols reached the red zone. Once they were in position to score a touchdown, UT settled instead for field goals. Instead of being comfortably ahead 17 or 21 to 3 at halftime, the Vols settled for a six-point lead. As the teams left the field for the locker room, the outcome of the game was already decided in most people’s minds. Certainly was in mine.
Everyone knew Tennessee would let South Carolina take the lead. Everyone knew the Vols would battle back ferociously. Everyone knew the game would come down to the last play.
Everyone knew that South Carolina would leave Neyland Stadium with only its third win in Knoxville ever.
But what no one knew or could have predicted was how that last, exciting desperation drive would highlight the fatal flaws to the Butch Jones era at the University of Tennessee. Poor clock management. Not giving his young quarterback the chance to impact the game until it was almost too late. The unwillingness to open up the playbook and give the gassed defense a chance to regain its legs. An inability to tailor the game plan to the strengths of the players instead of some rigid in-game agenda.
The prevent defense is known to prevent only one thing — winning. But Tennessee was also playing prevent offense all afternoon. The offensive game plan was designed not so much to score points, but to minimize the risks of young players handling the ball. It’s almost like the coaching staff was so afraid of potential turnovers — understandable considering South Carolina’s game against Arkansas last week — that the offense was hamstrung with a ten-play game plan. Tennessee settled on the safest possible strategy — Kelly to the left, Kelly to the right, Kelly up the middle. Once the Gamecocks found a way to bottle John Kelly up, the offense didn’t sputter.
It died, and the coaches were apparently willing to settle for that.
At least, until that last drive to end the game. The drive where the playbook was pried open and anything was possible. The drive when it was worth risking a turnover because the game was on the line. The drive that took the Vols into the red zone again, inside the five-yard line. The drive where once again, inexplicably, on short and goal with one second remaining, the ball wasn’t handed off to John Kelly, whose yards after contact stats are off the charts.
And everyone knew what was going to happen. Everyone knew the drive would fall short as the clock ran out. Not because of the players, but the inexcusable coaching decisions. Everything about the coaching today spoke eloquently about how they have settled for their probable fates, and are apathetic as a result.
But then, something no one expected happened.
Watching Jarrett Guarantano’s reaction to losing his first collegiate start was a defining moment, not just for him but for the team — and it’s something fans should pay close attention to. That young man was crushed. He took the full weight of the loss on his shoulders, taking responsibility for something that was unequivocally not his fault. When a team is hampered by the play calling, the blame for a loss doesn’t filter down to one player. It filters up, to one man.
The head coach.
But the fire in Guarantano’s demeanor, the absolute devastation when the game was over, says a lot about him not only as a player, but as a leader. The quarterback that collapsed on the field, abject in defeat, is the kind of player who will get right back up and get to work for the next game, and the game after that. From this moment on, every snap Guarantano takes on the field is an investment in Tennessee’s future — good, bad or ugly. Regardless of how bad or ugly it gets, though, every snap is an invaluable lesson that will pay off in his future as a player.
At this point, what do the Vols have to lose, really, in just gambling on its players to execute? Every QB is going to throw a pick, every running back is going to fumble, every wide receiver is going to drop a perfect pass. Young players learn from their mistakes. They don’t learn from game situations where their natural abilities and talents are hampered by their own coaches. So what purpose does that anemic, tensed up game plan serve?
Except to lose, of course.
Even in a loss, though, every snap of the ball is giving Guarantano and Tennessee the foundation needed to develop as a QB, as a leader.
Leadership is exactly what the Vols have been missing this season. While there was no sign of leadership on the sidelines during the game, there was a huge example of budding leadership in the slumped shoulders and dejected face of Jarrett Guarantano.
Unlike his coaches, Guarantano doesn’t appear to be able to settle for losing.
Every writer in Knoxville is sitting at their computers right now, composing their (well-deserved) evisceration of Butch Jones’s game plan, play calling, clock management — the laundry list of coaching flaws that were so glaring on Saturday afternoon. The fans, the alumni, and the media are calling for Jones’s firing and who can blame them? I can’t.
But for me, the defining moment of the game came after the clock hit zero. Watching Guarantano hit the turf of Neyland Stadium was one of those moments that brands itself into my mind — a kid for whom the game means so much that the sensation of losing literally took his legs out from underneath him. For me at least, that was a harbinger of what’s to come. Maybe not next week. Maybe not this season. But it will come.
There’s a white-hot edge of fire in Tennessee’s future. Watching Guarantano after the game gave me a moment of real pride, a sense that although the game was lost and I had to watch Will Muschamp’s smug smirk after being tortured by Tommy Tuberville’s inane chatter for three hours here was this great kid absolutely devastated that he hadn’t found a way to win the game despite all the odds stacked against him. In that moment, I knew exactly how Guarantano felt and I was proud of him for caring that much.
As I said a couple of weeks ago, the ball is now in John Currie’s court. Butch Jones’s future is not — cannot be in doubt. Dropping games, dropping attendance, dropping recruits have passed sentence on Butch Jones as definitively as possible.
And the next head football coach at the University of Tennessee, whoever he may be, must be a man who can take that fire that the players display and forge the team into the program that UT should be.
With players like Jarrett Guarantano, that development is what the university must provide. No more low-balling, no more delay. No more settling.
Tennessee requires coaching that doesn’t settle for mediocrity. Not for the fans, but for the players. The players clearly refuse to settle. The players deserve a coach who refuses to settle, as well.
Jarrett Guarantano spiked his helmet to the ground in frustration.
Making his first collegiate start, the Tennessee redshirt freshman quarterback was two yards away from being the hero. He was one second away from a storybook beginning.
But once his pass sailed wide of Brandon Johnson in the end zone to seal Tennessee’s 15–9 loss to South Carolina on Saturday, Guarantano felt the weight of bitter disappointment on his shoulders.
As the South Carolina players celebrated around him in Neyland Stadium, Guarantano took a seat near the edge of the opposing sideline and buried his head in his hands.
From a distance, South Carolina sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley spotted Guarantano and ran to him. There is a camaraderie among SEC quarterbacks, a bond solidified by enduring the highs and lows of running an offense under intense duress and scrutiny. They all know the emotional whirlwind that ensues when a player first steps behind center as the starter.
Once he reached Guarantano, Bentley offered his hand and helped Guarantano to his feet. They shared a hug before Bentley ran back to celebrate with his teammates and Guarantano retreated to the locker room to commiserate with his.
“I was very upset visibly, and I remember Jake from when I was younger. We met I think freshman year of high school, and he was just telling me great game and it was a great competition and just to keep my head up,” Guarantano said only 30 minutes after the encounter. “I have a lot of props for him. Last year, he did the same thing, he got the win versus us, but I think he’s a great player and he is going to continue to do great things.”
Coming off the bye week, Guarantano was given the start over Quinten Dormady in hopes of sparking Tennessee’s offense from its slumber. Although he provided hope for the future, Guarantano couldn’t provide immediate relief for Tennessee’s touchdown malaise.
The Vols (3–3, 0–3) settled for three field goals in four trips inside the red zone against South Carolina (5–2, 3–2) to remain winless in conference. Tennessee hasn’t scored a touchdown in 10 quarters, dating back to the first half against UMass on Sept. 23.
Guarantano finished 11 of 18 for 133 yards. He was sacked seven times, partly because his internal clock is still adjusting to the college level and partly because the offensive line struggled to contain South Carolina’s pass rush.
Guarantano’s best stretch came in the final minute of the game as the Vols desperately tried to pull out the victory after South Carolina had controlled the clock in the second half with methodical drives.
After taking a sack and nearly losing the ball at the UT 25-yard line, Guarantano hit Marquez Callaway for a 16-yard gain. He found Johnson running open down the middle for a 39-yard gain.
After two more completed passes to Callaway, a pass interference penalty gave Tennessee the ball at the South Carolina 2-yard line
On the final three plays, Guarantano threw it out of the end zone, had a pass knocked down at the line of scrimmage and finally, with one tick left on the clock, threw wide of Johnson.
“We have to make that play, and it comes down to making plays in critical moments,” Tennessee head coach Butch Jones said. “Our kids fought and put ourselves in an opportunity to win the football game. I’m proud of them for that, but it gets back to situational football and being able to master that.”
Although discouraged by UT’s second-half offensive struggles and lack of big plays, Jones was pleased with how Guarantano performed in his debut start.
“I thought he was very poised, very calm,” Jones said. “He made some plays with his legs. I’m very anxious to go back and watch the video. But in terms of showing poise and making your first start, I think there are a lot of things positively to build upon.”
Guarantano called his first start a “blessing,” one that twisted his body chemistry into knots.
“I couldn’t sleep last night and all morning I couldn’t eat anything. I was very nervous, very anxious,” Guarantano said. “Being able to do something like this, something I dreamed about since I was very little, I think that truly fulfilled my dream and I am just thankful for this opportunity.”
Tennessee redshirt senior offensive lineman Brett Kendrick wishes the Vols could have given Guarantano a victory to cap his SEC quarterback rite of passage.
“I thought he was incredible. I don’t know what else he could have done. What else can we ask him to do? He ran the ball when we needed it and took some hits. I thought his poise was incredible right there at the end of the game,” Kendrick said. “He’s special. He’s got a lot of talent. I thought he was huge for us.”
Tennessee is witnessing Guarantano’s maturation process in real time.
During UT’s opener against Georgia Tech when Dormady got the start, Guarantano’s poor body language was caught by the ESPN cameras and analyzed by the broadcasters.
In the ensuing six weeks, he’s attained a greater level of self awareness.
“Just being a competitor, I think that there were times when I was really distraught and it was visible, definitely the first game,” Guarantano said. “I think from that point on, I understood my role and had to just keep working hard and get better. Of course it hurt and I was upset at times. It definitely, definitely hurt, but I think it was for the better.”
In the aftermath of the South Carolina loss, Guarantano remained composed as he faced the media on the podium alone. The only time his emotions bubbled to the surface was when he discussed how painful it was to come so close to winning.
Three chances. Two yards. One second.
He bit his lip and fought back tears as he softly said “it hurts.”
The road doesn’t get any easier for Guarantano in his SEC indoctrination. Tennessee heads into the fire next Saturday to play No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
After riding an emotional roller coaster in his starting debut, Guarantano expressed confidence he’s ready for the challenges ahead.
“I felt comfortable out there. I think I am starting to get the hang of this thing,” Guarantano said. “It can only go up.”
For a short time, it looked like Butch Jones and his staff may have figured out their offense. But, after South Carolina made adjustments and settled in, it became clear that things were not going to be so simple.
The Vols suffered their third loss of the season on Saturday, falling short of Will Muschamp’s Gamecocks inside Neyland Stadium by a final score of 15–9.
Things started off well enough with redshirt freshman quarterback Jarrett Guarantano throwing for 54 yards and running for 16 more in the opening half of the first start of his career. UT held a 9–3 lead at the half but many points were left on the board. Multiple trips to the red zone ended in only field goals and it ultimately cost Tennessee the game when combined with what unfolded in the remainder of the contest.
Eventually, the Vols’ offense did nothing but stall out (Tennessee hasn’t scored a touchdown in 10 straight quarters now) and as a result, Bob Shoop’s defensive squad began wearing down. This led to SC scoring a touchdown and two field goals that became enough to seal up a win.
Make no mistake, the defense played the best they could. With multiple injuries and the suspension of starting lineman Darrell Taylor, they gave a valiant effort, giving up 323 total yards and only 15 points. The defense did more than enough to win this game, but yet again, Larry Scott’s offense came up well short, despite having a chance to win as time expired.
At this point, this is a pattern and it’s pattern that can be directly traced back to Butch Jones and his coaching decisions. Poor offensive play calling and unpreparedness in a general sense have been a regularity during the Vols’ 2017 campaign, which is now half over.
The SEC East is fully out of UT’s reach and with Alabama and a Kentucky team that handily beat South Carolina on the horizon in the next few weeks, whether or not Tennessee makes a bowl is a serious concern now.
We all know Butch Jones came into this game on the hot seat and this loss is on him fully. There’s no way to talk around this anymore. For the fifth out of six games on the year, we’re talking about an abysmal coaching effort from Jones. At what point is this no longer acceptable? I guess we’ll find out soon enough.
INSTANT REACTION GRADES:
Coaches: D (Bob Shoop did a decent job with the defense)
Quarterbacks: C (Guarantano did better than Dormady but he still wasn’t great)
Running Backs: B (John Kelly is still good but his offensive line is struggling to help him out)
Offensive Line: C-
Wide Receivers: C
Defensive Line: B- (Good effort but too many rushing yards given up)
Secondary: B (The secondary really kept Bentley in check for most of the day)
Tennessee comes out of the BYE week to face a South Carolina team that is playing pretty while, while the Vols themselves are reeling. Sitting at 3–2, UT seems to be struggling in all phases of the game, from the locker room to the field. It was announced that redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantauno would get his first start at quarterback as a Vol, giving the fans some hope, but at the same time leaving fans wondering how they plan on using him. Look for USC to take advantage of a young starter getting his shot at the limelight, although, I expect Guarantauno to settle in and make some plays. USC gets ahead early, the Vols keep this close, but fall in the end.
This is a very pivotal game for Tennessee. This matchup with South Carolina is one that could make or break the season. With a victory the Vols can kind of put to bed some of the chatter that there is a divisive locker room and that the team is falling apart at the seams. Lose, and things are not quite as rosy, especially if UT gets dominated. If the Vols don’t put up a fight and get dismantled, the wheels could easily come off and the season will completely hit the skids.
It’s hard to get a read on SC. They have played not-so-great at times. Heck, they lost to Kentucky by 10 and almost lost to Louisiana Tech. Last week, they made me ponder a little more, though, when they trounced Arkansas 48–22. This really made me think “Is Tennessee better than Arkansas?” That is a debate for another time.
Their QB, Jake Bentley, has been stellar at times. He’s dished out 12 touchdowns and only four picks with a 60-percent completion rating. Don’t worry, I didn’t forget the news that Jarrett Guarantano will get the nod at quarterback for the Vols. You don’t yank him if he comes out shaky. Let him feel his way and get comfortable and I expect him to do well.
Can Butch get the Will Muschamp monkey off of his back? He certainly needs to. I think Tennessee is backed into a corner and they somehow, someway find a way to get it done.
The game that most likely decides Butch Jones’ future could not have come at a more crucial or ironic time. One year after losing to Will Muschamp and South Carolina off a bye week, Jones has a chance to redeem himself.
However, Saturday won’t fall that way for Jones and the Tennessee Volunteers. Starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano will bring the Vols’ offense a boost, but there are still huge flaws in the play calling and execution. The South Carolina defense has improved greatly since the start of the season, and scored three touchdowns last week against Arkansas. It is hard to say that Tennessee will be able to drive and score on the Gamecocks’ defense on Saturday.
The South Carolina offensive line has given up 16 sacks in six games. However, with UT’s suspension of Darrell Taylor and lack of depth at defensive line, they could struggle to get pressure on SC quarterback Jake Bentley. If given time, Bentley is one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the SEC and I fully expect him to show that in Neyland on Saturday. Muschamp and South Carolina will roll.
South Carolina lost to Kentucky and should have lost to Louisiana Tech, which is not ideal. However, they also handed No. 20 NC State its only loss of the year and they put up nearly 50 on Arkansas last week. It’s hard to gauge this team midway through the year. Tennessee seems to have quit since the devastating Florida loss and I can’t get over this factor. Maybe it’s frustration with coaches, teammates or something else, but the bottom line is they don’t seem to be happy. We have seen a decent amount of Jarrett Guarantano and I don’t think we will suddenly have an offensive reboot with that QB change.
Tennessee will come into this game with Jarret Guarantano getting the start at QB. The unknown will be if he is ready to play and will this give the team some much needed momentum. The other big factor will be the crowd. Will there be 95,000 plus or will there be 70,000 to show the decision makers they are tired of the product being put out by Butch Jones. I think Guarantano provides a spark to start, but South Carolina is a much more consistent team and they have nowhere near the issues behind the scenes that this Tennessee team does. Butch will finish 0–6 against Muschamp and his seat will continue to burn.
It’s now or never for Butch Jones. He’s facing off against Will Muschamp, a coach who Butch has never beaten, at a time when a large swath of the Vol faithful are already to chomping at the bit to see a coaching change. It’s a less than ideal situation.
Let’s be honest here, Tennessee is not playing good football. In fact, they’re actively playing bad football, especially offensively. Perhaps the shift to Jarrett Guarantano under center will help, but as of right now, I have no reason to believe that. Perhaps the play calling will improve and the defense won’t be forced to stay on the field for an inordinate amount of time. But there’s no evidence to support the theory that this will happen.
South Carolina is mediocre at best but they’re more than good enough to beat UT with Butch Jones on the sideline. And I think they will. South Carolina turns up the heat even higher on Jones with a double-digit win.