The Tennessee Volunteers' 2017 campaign began in thrilling fashion with a come-from-behind victory over Georgia Tech in double overtime. The Vols then made easy work of FCS opponent Indiana State the following week to get to 2-0. But a heartbreaking loss to Florida on the final play of the game, would soon send the Vols on a downward spiral from which they have yet to recover. That includes a two-game losing streak, and their first shutout loss since 1994, courtesy of a 41-0 beating in Knoxville at the hands of Georgia.
To make matters worse, a quarterback change has given no positive indication that it can fix an offense that hasn’t scored a touchdown in 10 quarters. A worn-out Tennessee defense can’t seem to ever get off the field thanks to that anemic offense. And the Vols now sit at 3-3 at the mid-point of the season, still winless in the SEC and trending further in the wrong direction. All of which has shifted the focus of a disgruntled fan base away from the field and on to speculation regarding potential replacements for head coach Butch Jones. While Tennessee still has a reasonable chance to become bowl eligible, the Vols must first find a way to right the ship, with or without Jones.
Offensive MVP: RB John Kelly
If not for Kelly (above, right), Tennessee wouldn’t have much offense to speak of through the first half. He leads the team in rushing yards (552), receptions (24) and touchdowns (6). And despite opposing defenses keying in on him every single week, the versatile junior running back has still managed to produce more yards from scrimmage (802) than any other player in the SEC.
Defensive MVP: DB Rashaan Gaulden
An argument could be made for a handful of players here, but Gaulden has been the most consistent performer on defense. The junior defensive back has come up big in key moments as well. He forced a late fumble against Georgia Tech and intercepted a pass against Florida, both of which led to game-tying drives for the Volunteers. Gaulden also led Tennessee in tackles against Florida and South Carolina. He now ranks third on the team with 39 tackles and is tied for second with 3.0 tackles for a loss.
Best Moment of the First Half: Game-clinching stop against Georgia Tech to complete a wild comeback win in 2OT
After dominating the Tennessee defense for much of the night, Georgia Tech once again turned to its triple-option attack for a potential game-winning, two-point conversion in double overtime. Volunteers defensive end Darrell Taylor would have nothing of it, however, stuffing Yellow Jackets quarterback TaQuon Marshall behind the line of scrimmage to secure a 42-41 victory for the Volunteers.
Best Newcomer: OL Trey Smith
The former 5-star prospect has started all six games at right guard, flashing moments of dominance that remind everyone exactly why he was considered the No. 1 player in his high school class. A strong argument can even be made that Smith has been Tennessee’s most consistent offensive lineman so far this season. According to Pro Football Focus, Smith graded out as the third-best true freshman in the nation (regardless of position) through the first four weeks.
Biggest Surprise: The touchdown drought
There have been plenty of surprises on Rocky Top in the first half of the season. Unfortunately, not many of those have been of the good variety. That includes the fact that Tennessee has not scored a single touchdown since the first half of its game against UMass, almost a month ago. The Vols have now played 10 consecutive quarters without finding the end zone. And it doesn’t look promising for Tennessee’s touchdown drought to end anytime soon with a matchup against Alabama looming on Saturday.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Will the Vols find their way on offense?
The Tennessee offense has indeed fallen on hard times, scoring just two touchdowns and averaging 238 yards over its last three games. In the first three contests, the Volunteers scored 14 touchdowns and averaged 402 yards per game. The good news is that this illustrates that the Tennessee offense hasn’t been completely incompetent all season. And while there is plenty to improve upon with redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano now under center, there is still hope for this offense to get back on track.
2. Will Butch Jones make it through the season?
Another head-scratching season for Tennessee has even the most loyal of Jones’ supporters separating themselves from the coach with the hottest seat in America. The burning question now is, when will the powers that be at Tennessee make a move to send Jones on his way?
The rumor mill has been hard at work trying to supply that answer. Many believe that Jones’ ouster could come as soon as the final whistle blows against Alabama. While others have speculated that Jones’ tenure could actually extend into next season with a strong finish to this campaign. Time will tell, as only a select few really know for certain. However, if things continue down the same path, common sense dictates that Jones won’t be around for much longer.
3. Will Tennessee become bowl eligible?
The Vols will need to win at least half of their remaining games to have any shot at becoming bowl eligible for the fourth consecutive season. And while there are several matchups left on the schedule that could be ripe for the taking, that will only be possible if the Tennessee offense can somehow return to its early-season form. If the current state of affairs lingers into the second half of the season, the Volunteers will be hard-pressed to get the necessary six wins.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Oct. 21 at Alabama
The Volunteers will kick off the second half of their 2017 campaign in Tuscaloosa on Saturday against the No. 1 team in the land. Oddsmakers have the Crimson Tide as a 34.5-point favorite over Tennessee. It is the largest point spread in the history of the series. A once-proud rivalry could get ugly for the Vols on Saturday.
2. Nov. 18 LSU
Following a loss to Troy in Baton Rouge, Ed Orgeron’s Tigers were starting to look like a team that Tennessee might have a decent shot at beating. However, back-to-back wins against Florida and Auburn have restored LSU as a viable threat in the SEC. That doesn’t bode well for a struggling Tennessee team that hasn’t won a cross-divisional game since 2010.
3. Oct. 28 at Kentucky
The Vols have owned the Wildcats in this annual series, losing only once to Kentucky since 1985. Regardless, Kentucky will likely be 6-1 heading into this home matchup with a full head of steam. Barring a miracle against Alabama, Tennessee will be at the height of its downward spiral at 0-4 in the SEC. The good news is that the Wildcats have allowed everyone on their schedule to hang around on the scoreboard this season, which could provide an opportunity for the Volunteers to get over the hump.
4. Nov. 25 vs. Vanderbilt
Like the Volunteers, the Commodores are trending in the wrong direction at the moment. Vanderbilt has lost each of its last four games by at least two touchdowns. Unlike Tennessee, the Commodores are still managing double-digit points every week. If the Vols can get past their woes on offense, they should have a chance to get the win in Knoxville, but this one could go either way.
5. Nov. 11 at Missouri
At 1-5, Missouri currently has the worst record of any team left on Tennessee’s schedule, and the worst defense to go along with it. But the Tigers do have an offense that can put points on the scoreboard in a hurry. This is a game that Tennessee should win. But once again, a big offensive resurgence will be needed to outscore Mizzou on the road.
6. Nov. 4. Southern Miss
I’m probably selling Southern Miss short on this list, as this will not be an easy game for Tennessee. The Golden Eagles are currently 4-2 on the season, including two impressive shutout wins. They also gave 5-1 Kentucky all it could handle in the season opener. The hope is that the talent gap is wide enough to give Tennessee the edge.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.