Tennessee experienced the unthinkable on Aug. 31, 2019. The Vols lost their season opener 38–30 to Georgia State — the first Group of 5 loss for the program in more than a decade.
Four months later, Tennessee celebrated a Gator Bowl win against Indiana, and the Vols enter 2020 on a six-game winning streak. Jeremy Pruitt orchestrated an impressive turnaround, leading Tennessee to seven wins in its final eight games and a third-place finish in the SEC East. But the Vols have big hurdles to jump with with their annual matchups against Alabama, Florida and Georgia.
Previewing Tennessee's Offense for 2020
The Vols need consistency at quarterback. Jarrett Guarantano is a senior with 25 starts in 34 games. He was pushed last season by Brian Maurer and J.T. Shrout, and this season he has to hold off that duo and elite freshman Harrison Bailey. If Guarantano puts forth the caliber of play that he did in a brilliant second half at Kentucky and at Missouri — he had a career-best 415 yards passing vs. the Tigers to clinch a bowl berth — he is the unquestioned starter.
Whichever quarterback emerges will be playing behind an offensive line that should be the best group on Tennessee’s offense. If Georgia transfer Cade Mays receives a waiver, the Vols would have four former five-star recruits starting up front. Left guard Trey Smith is an elite talent returning as a senior. Sophomore tackles Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright are the X-factors. Both need to shore up their pass protection. If they do, the unit should be one of the best in the SEC. But will that lead to better red-zone production? The Vols scored touchdowns on only 48.9 percent of red-zone tries last season.
The rushing attack should improve behind that line after averaging 4.1 yards per carry last season. Sophomore Eric Gray finished his freshman season impressively, with 246 yards and three touchdowns against Vanderbilt before keying UT’s comeback win in the Gator Bowl. Ty Chandler led Tennessee in rushes (135) and yards (655) last season, his third at Tennessee.
The biggest offensive losses were at wide receiver, where centerpieces Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings graduated. Josh Palmer will be tasked with leading the group as the lone returner with double-digit receptions (34) in 2019. Help could come from transfer Deangelo Gibbs, who sat out last season, and grad transfer Velus Jones Jr. Ramel Keyton and Cedric Tillman are promising sophomores, but expect a push from freshmen Jalin Hyatt and Malachi Wideman. A lot will fall on the wide receivers without any proven threat at tight end, where Austin Pope returns with only seven receptions in 33 career games.
Previewing Tennessee's Defense for 2020
How did Tennessee flip its season around? The defense did not allow more than 22 points in any of the final six games after allowing 29 or more in five of the first seven. The Vols return a lot of the talent that contributed to that effort, but they face the task of replacing linebacker Daniel Bituli, edge rusher Darrell Taylor and safety Nigel Warrior.
Henry To’o To’o will highlight and captain the Tennessee defense at inside linebacker after a Freshman All-America campaign with 72 tackles. He and Quavaris Crouch, who played outside linebacker as a freshman, form a scary and athletic pair of inside linebackers.
One of the biggest questions facing Tennessee is how it will replace the production and threat of Taylor. Taylor had 16.5 sacks in the past two seasons, while the top three returning outside linebackers combined for 8.5 in the same window. Kivon Bennett looks like a breakout candidate to replace Taylor. Emmit Gooden was expected to help the push up front, but he was dismissed from the team in July. The defensive line group that returns its entire playing rotation — including defensive end starters Darel Middleton and Aubrey Solomon — and helped the Vols limit opponents to fewer than 100 yards rushing in four of their final six games.
Bryce Thompson is one of the most dangerous players on Tennessee’s defense. Tennessee settled in when he returned from a suspension and got back to the level that earned him Freshman All-America honors in 2018. He had three interceptions for a defense that had more interceptions (15) than passing touchdowns allowed (14). The Vols have experience on the back end with nickel back Shawn Shamburger and cornerback Alontae Taylor, while the staff is excited about freshman Key Lawrence. Jaylen McCollough is in at safety replacing Warrior, while Trevon Flowers and Theo Jackson are experienced safety options.
Previewing Tennessee's Specialists for 2020
Brent Cimaglia gives Tennessee one of the best kickers in the nation. He hit 23-of-27 field goals last season. The Vols need better punting, as Paxton Brooks was inconsistent. Jones averaged 24 yards per kickoff return with USC and will try to replicate that production.
Expectations are higher for Tennessee after 2019 turned from a flop into a building block. UT’s offense appears poised to improve in a second year under offensive coordinator Jim Chaney with a fortified offensive line. If the Vols can adequately replace defensive mainstays who sparked the second-half resurgence, they should take another step forward.