In lieu of a position report card, I will simply give my opine. The battle between Tennessee and Florida on Saturday night was one to forget for Vol fans and players alike.
The old adage “so close, but yet so far away” couldn’t be more appropriate for the 2018 Volunteers. This team has some quality talent in spots. They don’t have the talent to match the likes of Alabama, Auburn or Georgia. But you can’t convince me that they are 26 points worse than Florida. Kentucky is not so far ahead that that they are sitting in second place of the division when the Vols are dead last. Yet, here we are.
Tennessee looks like it might not win a conference game for the second season in a row. A bowl berth was a solid goal for this team. Now it looks like an unreasonable expectation.
It all starts up front. The offensive line continues to be a liability. The collapse has been a domino-effect that is predicated on the guys blocking in the trenches. It was hard to evaluate the efficiency of the O-line against ETSU and UTEP. Things didn’t look well against West Virginia. But after the performance against the Gators, there is no doubt where Tennessee needs help: the most important position group in the SEC.
Heck, Bret Bielema was able to get by on that alone for a few years. He won seven or more games in-a-row for three-straight years just by having the biggest and nastiest offensive line in the conference. He didn’t offer much else, but you get my point.
After last season, I thought I had seen the worst offensive line production I would ever witness. It turns out I was wrong. That project will be a process that will take years, not months, to fix. Last year’s squad gave up 35 sacks. The 2018 unit has given up a total of six, which is a much better pace. But those numbers are blanketed by a new and conservative scheme. There’s a reason why Tyson Helton has dialed up so many runs on first and second downs. The Vols continue to miss blocking assignments and fail to get a push up front. They are currently 114th in the nation for giving up tackles for loss.
It didn’t help that Tennessee gave up six turnovers either, some of which were caused by pressure from Florida’s defensive front. Also, the Gators traveled a grand total of 29 yards for their first 14 points. That’s not ideal for a team trying to find their identity.
Give Jarrett Guarantano credit, though. The guy needs a care package from every UT fan that attended the game. He has consistently stood in the pocket waiting for routes to develop, but there is simply not enough time. He has shown much improved accuracy this season. That improvement is only exploited if routes develop. Giving up 14 points in the blink of an eye against SEC competition is insurmountable for just about any quarterback, especially when the passing game is limited due to protection.
The play of the offensive line affects every other position. This game proved that. The defensive showing on Saturday was probably the best you will ever see when giving up 47 points. The Vols’ defense was consistently put in adverse situations. The production of the defensive front is a total contrast to the offensive unit. Alexis Johnson continues to impress. He and Kyle Phillips each had a sack. The D-line isn’t overly disruptive, but they bring it every game. Even freshman defensive back Alontae Taylor provided a counter-punch after the 14-0 deficit with a forced fumble in Tennessee territory.
It’s hard enough overcoming turnovers at the goal-line. When referees miss pass interference, it sucks. But what’s worse is not having a chance because you can’t protect your lead or your quarterback.
This is a problem that Tennessee can’t fix overnight. The Vols’ offensive front won’t get much bigger this season, but they can get nastier. It is their choice. Other than that, the Vols have to roll out who they can. Hopefully Jeremy Pruitt or offensive line coach Will Friend can influence some change in that facet of the game. Then the Vols will have a chance at a conference win.