There would be no huge turnaround for the Tennessee Volunteers in year one of the Jeremy Pruitt era. Then again, that was never really the expectation for a demoralized Tennessee squad coming off the worst season in program history. And while the 2018 season concluded with the 5-7 Vols falling just short of their goal to make a bowl game improvement was made. The 2018 campaign also had its share of memorable highlights, and lest we not forget, a pair of big upsets for Tennessee to hang its hat on. There were a few standout players and performances deserving of accolades as well. So, with that in mind, here is a look back at the good, and some of the bad, that encompassed a roller-coaster season for the Volunteers.
Offensive MVP: Ty Chandler, RB
The sophomore running back overcame injury and a woeful offensive line to lead the team with 813 yards from scrimmage (630 rushing, 183 receiving) and seven touchdowns (four rushing, three receiving). Chandler also provided the Vols’ backfield with a true home-run threat with touchdown runs of 81 and 75 yards, while leading all Tennessee running backs with a respectable 5.5 yards per carry average.
Defensive MVP: Darrell Taylor, LB
The redshirt junior was able to make a smooth transition to outside linebacker in Jeremy Pruitt’s 3-4 scheme after spending his first three seasons in Knoxville with his hand in the dirt at defensive end. Taylor led the defense in sacks (8), tackles for a loss (11) and forced fumbles (3). He became one of just three players in the history of Tennessee football to record four sacks in a single game (vs. Kentucky), joining Corey Miller and the legendary Reggie White. Taylor earned SEC Defensive Player of the Week honors for that effort. He also enjoyed notable performances against Georgia (6 tackles, 3 sacks, 2 FF), Auburn (5 tackles, FR) and Vanderbilt (6 tackles, 3 TFL, sack).
Best Freshman: Bryce Thompson, DB
A late addition to Tennessee’s 2018 signing class, the 4-star athlete flashed elite playmaking ability throughout a stellar freshman campaign. Thompson led the Volunteers with three interceptions and seven pass breakups, adding 34 tackles (4 TFL), a sack and a forced fumble to earn a spot on the 2018 SEC All-Freshman team. He also earned SEC Freshman of the Week honors for his standout performance against ETSU and was named to the PFF College SEC Defensive Team of the Week three times this season. Pro Football Focus graded Thompson as the best true freshman cornerback in the nation. Fellow freshman cornerback, Alontae Taylor, also received a high mark with a solid 2018 season of his own.
Best Play of the Season: Hail Mary vs. Kentucky
There were a handful of worthy candidates here, but none were better than Marquez Callaway’s Hail Mary catch against the Wildcats. Callaway seemingly appeared out of nowhere in the end zone, leaping and snatching a long desperation strike downfield from Jarrett Guarantano to extend Tennessee’s lead to 17-0 as time expired in the first half.
Best Performance by a Player: Jarrett Guarantano vs. Auburn
Darrell Taylor’s monster four-sack performance against Kentucky came in a very close second here, but this one goes to Guarantano. The sophomore quarterback led an inspiring aerial assault against the heavily favored Tigers, en route to a career-best 328 passing yards, two scores and no turnovers. As a result, Guarantano was named SEC Offensive Player of the Week, as well as The Maxwell Award National Offensive Player of the Week. He also received an elite grade of 93.3 from Pro Football Focus for his standout effort in the upset victory over Auburn.
Best Game (Team Performance): Vols Dominate No. 11 Kentucky
Kentucky had already snapped a record 31-game losing streak against Florida in The Swamp earlier in the season, and the 11th-ranked Wildcats appeared destined to beat the Vols in Knoxville for the first time since 1984. Apparently, Tennessee didn’t get the memo, as the underdog Volunteers proceeded to dominate the ‘Cats on both sides of the football on their way to a shocking 24-7 win, giving the Vols their second upset victory of the season over a ranked SEC opponent.
Defining Moment: Missed Opportunity at South Carolina
It’s somewhat difficult to point out a single defining moment for the Vols in a season that was sort of all over the place. If you're looking for the positive spin, you could point to either one of Tennessee’s upset victories over ranked SEC teams. You also could look to the end-of-season loss to Vanderbilt that cost the Vols a bowl berth as a defining moment. But the 27-24 loss on the road at South Carolina sort of encapsulates Tennessee’s 2018 season in a nutshell. A game in which the Vols looked to be well on their way to victory before a late-game meltdown cost them the win. In hindsight, Tennessee also would have been bowl eligible had it won this matchup, avoiding much of the end-of-season drama.
Biggest Surprise: Upsetting No. 21 Auburn on the Road
The Volunteers traveled to Auburn to face the No. 21-ranked Tigers as a two-touchdown underdog. Tennessee had not beaten the Tigers since 1999. The Vols had not beaten an opponent from the SEC West on the road since 2007, and they had not won a game against any SEC team or a ranked opponent since '16. Tennessee snapped all the aforementioned streaks in one fell swoop, shocking the college football world with a 30-24 upset victory on The Plains.
Biggest Disappointment: Losing to Vanderbilt for the Third Year in a Row/Bowl Berth Denied
Tennessee’s offensive line certainly qualifies for this one. However, nothing was more painful than losing to in-state foe Vanderbilt for the third consecutive season, something that had not happened since 1926. Missing out on a bowl game as a result and losing in blowout fashion put salt on the wound.
Senior That Will Be Missed the Most: Kyle Phillips, DE
The talented defensive lineman’s final season on Rocky Top would be his best, ranking second on the team with five sacks and eight tackles for a loss, while his 56 tackles ranked third. Phillips was in strong consideration for “Defensive MVP,” as well as “Best Play of the Season” for his epic 27-yard rumble to the end zone after picking off Jalen Hurts in the Alabama game. In addition to that pick-six against Alabama, Phillips had four pass breakups, a fumble recovery and he blocked an extra point. He also garnered SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week honors with a career-high nine tackles against Auburn to go along with a crucial forced fumble that led to a touchdown. But it might be Phillips’ leadership, both on and off the field, that will be missed most.
Player to Watch in 2019: Jarrett Guarantano, QB
All things considered, Guarantano put together a solid and efficient effort in 2018. But aside from his big performance in the upset win against Auburn, his numbers left plenty to be desired most weeks. The good news is that there is a lot of upside in Guarantano as he heads into his redshirt junior campaign with all his favorite weapons intact. There are plenty of question marks as well, chief among them being Tennessee’s much-maligned offensive line. Guarantano also heads into 2019 under the direction of his fourth offensive coordinator in as many years. Will he be able to take a step forward in Tennessee’s new offense or will it just be more of the same?
Biggest Offseason Question Mark: Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line
There are many question marks facing the Volunteers this offseason. Currently, the big question is — who will be named offensive coordinator? That should be answered very soon, inviting an even bigger question — what will he do to fix a Tennessee offense that ranked dead last in the SEC and 121st nationally in total offense? More importantly, what will he do to address an abysmal offensive line that was at the root of most of the Vols’ shortcomings this past season?
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.