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Tennessee vs. Georgia: 10 things

Georgia visited Neyland Stadium on Saturday, Sept. 30, and left with a 41-0 win over Tennessee on what was a devastating afternoon for the Vols. The loss dropped Tennessee to 3-2 on the season, and 0-2 in the SEC. Here are 10 things that stood out:

1.) Five wide on play No. 1?

Tennessee’s best weapon is certainly junior runningback John Kelly. In fact, Kelly is statistically the SEC’s best runningback. So what was Tennessee doing in a five-wide look, with no Kelly in the backfield, on the first play from scrimmage?

I get the desire to avoid being predictable. And if Tennessee had come out and run the ball three straight times before punting, few people would’ve been happy. But when you have a quarterback who is struggling and you’re facing what might be the SEC’s second-best defense, it makes sense to ease him into the game rather than putting too much on him right off the bat, doesn’t it?

The result of the play spoke for itself, as Georgia jumped the route and picked off the pass to put itself in scoring position on the very first play of the game. Obviously hindsight is 20/20, but here’s the deal with that play call: if you hand the ball off to Kelly and he fumbles it away on the first play from scrimmage, nobody is saying, “What the heck did you do that for?”

2.) One of the worst days ever inside Neyland Stadium…

Few people expected Tennessee to beat Georgia, but few could’ve predicted the level of ineptitude from the Vols’ offense. Make no mistake: this wasn’t just a loss to a superior team. This was a demoralizing blow. It was Tennessee’s worst home loss since 1905, and the worst loss ever at Neyland Stadium. (Remember, Tennessee didn’t make the move to Shields-Watkins Field, which would eventually become Neyland Stadium, until 1921. In 1905, the Vols were still playing at Baldwin Park.

The day got off to a good start, with Peyton Manning leading the Vol Walk, and a sellout crowd of 102,455 creating a beautiful orange-and-white human checkerboard inside the stadium. But the mood quickly soured.

3.) Offensive incompetence

There really isn’t a unit on the offensive side of the ball that is playing well for Tennessee right now. The offensive line is abysmal, quarterback play is horrendous, the receivers are getting no separation and are dropping too many balls. We now know that the narrative from last week’s game — a Florida hangover — simply wasn’t true. The truth is that this Tennessee offense has real problems — problems that can’t be quickly fixed. The Vols haven’t scored a touchdown in over six quarters (and Ohio put up 48 points in the first half against UMass today . . . yes, lowly Ohio, and, yes, the same UMass team that Tennessee struggled to score against last week).

Tennessee only had two plays of more than 10 yards today, and one of those ended in a fumble. The Vols got into Florida territory just three times. Twice they were forced to punt from around the 45-yard-line and the other was the John Kelly fumble early in the third quarter. Tennessee had the ball in field goal range just once, and that was a gift — the first quarter interception that was quickly handed back to Georgia after a butt-fumble.

For the game, Tennessee finished with an atrocious 142 yards of offense. Just how bad was it? Consider this: Quinten Dormady had a negative quarterback rating in the first half, and the Vols still wound up with more passing yards (80) than rushing yards (62). Yikes.

Oh, and by the way . . . it was the first time Tennessee was shut out since a 34-0 loss to Florida in 1994. The Gators were ranked No. 1 in the nation that day, and a true freshman named Peyton Manning was trying to win the quarterback job. (The last time Georgia shut Tennessee out? You have to go back 94 years, to 1923, a 17-0 loss at Neyland Stadium.)

4.) Guarantano must start

Butch Jones said in his postgame press conference that there are no starters as Tennessee goes into its open date. All positions are up for grabs. That doesn’t likely mean the Vols see many new starters when they return to action against South Carolina in two weeks, but there is one new starter they absolutely should see: Jarrett Guarantano.

Here’s the deal on the quarterback situation, from my perspective: I thought Quinten Dormady played well enough to secure the starting job against Georgia Tech and against Indiana State. I wouldn’t have blamed Jones for putting in Guarantano against the Yellow Jackets just to try to spark the offense. He didn’t, and that was obviously the right decision. We saw Guarantano in limited second quarter action against Indiana State (and again late in the game), and he clearly wasn’t as good as Dormady. We saw him again in the second half of the UMass game, and Dormady was still the clear leader.

But Dormady’s play was so bad against Georgia, and the offense is playing so terribly and so out-of-rhythm, that there needs to be a change. Guarantano hasn’t done anything to earn the job, not in his limited in-game action. But Tennessee has tried it with Dormady, and it isn’t working. The Vols need to make a change at quarterback and see if Guarantano can grow into the job.

Dormady was a scary five-of-16 for 64 yards and two interceptions before he was finally benched. Guarantano’s stat line wasn’t terrible: six of seven. But that sounds better than it really was. All of his passes were underneath throws, for a total of just 16 yards.

5.) Larry Scott on the hot seat?

If I’m Butch Jones, I’m thinking seriously about firing Larry Scott, if for no reason other than trying to save my own skin.

I wasn’t enamored with Jones’ decision to promote Scott to offensive coordinator during the off-season; I would’ve preferred him to make a big-name hire and turn over the reins to a proven offensive mastermind. I think one of the reasons he went with an inside promotion is because the offense is Jones’ offense and is always going to be Jones’ offense. That’s why a lot of the problems that existed on the offensive side of the ball during two previous coordinators (Mike Bajakian and Mike DeBord) are still present under Scott.

With that said, something is missing from last year’s offense, and it’s more than just Josh Dobbs. I’m not convinced that firing Scott would change much, because, as I said, this is Butch Jones’ offense. But if I’m Butch Jones, there is no move too drastic to make at this point.

6.) The defense wasn’t the problem

Flash back to Tennessee’s season-opening win over Georgia Tech, and everyone was ready to run second-year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop out of town. The defense, it appeared, was the problem. But the Vols’ defense is improving as the season progresses, and was not the problem today. Sure, Georgia scored 41 points and had 378 yards of offense, while averaging over five yards per carry on the ground. But Shoop had a good game plan. The Bulldogs’ first possession, when they took over with a short field after the interception, was a big win for the Tennessee defense, which limited Georgia to a field goal. With Shoop using run blitzes at the appropriate times and getting some pressure on quarterback Jake Fromm, Tennessee’s defense played well enough to keep the Vols in the game.

The offensive non-production eventually caught up with the defense, as it almost always does. But the defense was not the problem today, not overall.

7.) Justin Martin is growing

After starting just two games in 2016 (down from six games started as a sophomore in 2015), Tennessee senior Justin Martin is becoming a reliable pass defender for the Vols. He was UT’s most improved player in the spring and is the healthiest he has been since he arrived at Tennessee. And it’s paying off. He had the interception today, forced the crucial fumble at the goal line against Florida, and is proving to be difficult to throw against.

Overall, Tennessee’s secondary played well today. While no one will accuse Georgia of being a strong passing team, especially in the absence of Jacob Eason, the Bulldogs completed just seven of 17 passes for 84 yards today.

8.) Where in the world is Marquez Callaway?

Sophomore wide receiver Marquez Callaway became an instant star in Tennessee’s double-overtime win over Georgia Tech, and was also impressive against Indiana State and Florida, but he has since disappeared. Callaway has not had a catch since the Florida game and has been targeted just once.

In the absence of Jauan Jennings, who is out for the season with a broken wrist, it appeared that Callaway would emerge as a much-needed weapon at wide receiver. Instead, he’s getting lost in Tennessee’s inept passing game. Before leaving today’s game with an injury, Callaway was targeted just once.

9.) The new OL is the same as the last OL

One constant in Butch Jones’ five-year tenure in Knoxville has been questionable offensive line play, and that has certain been one of the many problems on the offensive side of the ball this season. The Vols made a coaching change with the unit after the 2016 season, which most people would have agreed needed to happen. Walt Wells, who had joined the staff a year earlier, was promoted. But we are five games in to the new season, and this unit is still not playing well. Making yet another change today (moving Brett Kendrick to left tackle and bringing in Marcus Tatum at right tackle) didn’t seem to improve things very much.

10.) It’s the beginning of the end

So, now what? I said earlier this week that Butch Jones isn’t going anywhere just yet, regardless of what happened today. But I said a blowout loss would probably mean the beginning of the end for Jones, and that’s what we saw play out. Here’s why I don’t think John Currie is going to pull the plug on Jones just yet: Every game on the Tennessee schedule, with the exception of Alabama, appears winnable. Yes, that includes LSU. Tennessee could very easily finish with a 9-3 record.

Will that happen? I certainly wouldn’t count on it. Every game on Tennessee’s schedule, also looks loseable. Yes, that includes Southern Miss. Tennessee could just as easily finish with a 3-9 record.

A 3-9 finish isn’t any more likely than a 9-3 finish, but if you split the difference, you’re looking at a 6-6 finish, which is probably enough to sink Jones’ ship. Butch Jones isn’t going to be fired tomorrow, or Monday. But chances are increasing that he’ll be fired before we get to Thanksgiving. A loss to South Carolina in two weeks might do it. A loss to Kentucky two weeks after that, might do it. And if he loses to South Carolina and Kentucky, that would almost certainly do it.

The outlook is not good.

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