Tennessee football is in the toilet, and this season needs to be flushed
FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. – Joyful Arkansas fans chanted their head coach’s name.
Arkansas’ first-year coach has Razorbacks fans believing he’s the man to jumpstart what had been a slumbering program.
Tennessee’s third-year coach Jeremy Pruitt has left some fans wondering about his buyout. (Don’t bother reaching for the calculator. Pruitt’s two-year extension he received in September, which comes with a raise beginning in 2021, means he’s under contract for five more seasons.)
Tennessee is in the toilet once again.
And unlike last season, this team seems unfit and uninspired to rally, and a few stout opponents remaining won't give the Vols much opportunity.
Pruitt and a couple of players calmly assessed the situation after Tennessee’s fourth straight loss. Pruitt rattled off missed assignments and failed execution. Linebacker Henry To’o To’o said the Vols remain confident, and running back Eric Gray spoke of the need to mentally move on to the next game against Texas A&M.
Freshman running back Dee Beckwith didn’t bother with the carefully selected words when he fired off a tweet shortly after the game ended.
“This s--- doesn’t make any sense!” Beckwith wrote in a since-deleted tweet.
He’s right. It doesn’t compute how a Tennessee team that returned eight starters on each side of the ball and hasn’t had anyone miss any games because of COVID-19 or contact tracing could be 2-4 after six games. The latest loss came to an opponent that didn’t win any SEC games the past two seasons.
Arkansas (3-3) has emerged as the SEC’s best surprise. Tennessee ranks among the conference’s biggest underachievers.
For a while, Saturday looked like it would be the start to a promising second half of the season for Tennessee.
The Vols led 13-0 at halftime after limiting mistakes throughout the first half. The offensive line consistently opened running lanes, and Eric Gray repeatedly gashed Arkansas’ shaky run defense.
The Razorbacks helped Tennessee’s cause with a few blunders, none more egregious than A.J. Reed missing a 21-yard field goal.
At halftime, Pittman must have remembered that Tennessee was without two key members of its secondary in Alontae Taylor and Shawn Shamburger. And Feleipe Franks must have remembered he was playing the Vols, whom he has feasted on during his career, first at Florida and now as Arkansas’ graduate transfer starting quarterback.
Franks threw for 170 yards and three touchdowns during the third quarter, when Arkansas outscored Tennessee 24-0.
“We count on Feleipe. He's our guy,” Pittman said.
Tennessee is still waiting for a quarterback to be its guy. The Vols haven’t had adequate production from a quarterback since Joshua Dobbs departed after the 2016 season.
And Saturday revealed there isn’t a quick fix lurking on the bench.
Starter Jarrett Guarantano exited after a head injury in the third quarter.
Backup Brian Maurer had no magic. He zinged four errant throws before he was replaced by freshman Harrison Bailey.
Bailey completed 6 of 9 passes thanks mostly to check-down throws to running backs, but he also threw two interceptions. With the quarterbacks unable to help the offense, Arkansas' defense stiffened against Tennessee's ground game.
Pruitt hasn’t been fibbing when he’s said repeatedly that Guarantano, flawed as he is, gives Tennessee the best chance at success.
Regardless of who’s at quarterback, success will be hard to come by the rest of this season.
Texas A&M and Florida have the talent to bludgeon the Vols, and a road win over Auburn would come as a surprise. That leaves Vanderbilt.
At least the Commodores might play nice and roll over.
Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake's subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.