LEXINGTON, KY - NOVEMBER 09, 2019 - Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano #2 of the Tennessee Volunteers during the away game between the Kentucky Wildcats and the Tennessee Volunteers at Kroger Field in Lexington, KY. Photo By Andrew Ferguson/Tennessee Athletics
Thanks to a six-game winning streak and a hot streak on the recruiting trail, Volunteers head coach Jeremy Pruitt certainly deserves some credit for creating some positive momentum in Knoxville. The Vols started the season 2-5 with an embarrassing season opening loss to Georgia State, but they later rallied to become bowl eligible, which speaks to Pruitt’s ability as a leader.
While getting that kind of buy-in is impressive, whether or not the hype train is warranted remains in question. Of those final six wins, only two of those teams finished with winning records, and the Vols have had a front-loaded schedule since the SEC split into divisions in the early 90s.
That won’t be the case this season, as the annual game with Georgia has been pushed to mid-November, but overall the schedule is manageable for another successful season that could keep things moving forward in Knoxville.
The much-maligned Jarrett Guarantano returns at quarterback, but thanks to his ups-and-downs, backup Brian Maurer has plenty of game experience if needed. Ty Chandler and Tim Jordan make up an all-senior backfield that will get plenty of help up front, where the Vols return all five starters from 2019. That unit is led by the mammoth Trey Smith, who has struggled with blood clot issues that have kept him off the field throughout his career. If those issues are behind him, he will continue to be a force for UT and whichever NFL team is fortunate enough to draft him next spring.
The receiver room, like those of so many other teams in the East, is depending on unproven talent to emerge. Ramel Keyton and Brandon Johnson are the leading candidates to fill that void and will need to do so if the Vols want to avoid being one dimensional on offense.
Aubrey Solomon is just one of the many talented returning starters on a defense that has that luxury at every position. Tennessee wasn’t elite on defense, and the losses of safety Nigel Warrior and Daniel Bituli will be felt, but the experience across the board could make it a better unit overall in 2020.
Tennessee may have the best tandem of kickers in the league with Brent Cimaglia and Paxton Brooks coming off strong seasons, and Ty Chandler offers an explosive return option to round out their special teams unit.
The Vols’ season will hinge on knocking off one of the big four on their schedule (Oklahoma, Florida, Alabama & Georgia) and running the table against similarly equipped teams on the schedule (South Carolina & Kentucky). Either way, 8-4 and third in the East looks like their ceiling.