Despite a 2017 campaign that would rank as the worst in program history, the Tennessee Volunteers entered the 2018 season with a renewed sense of optimism under the direction of first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt. Unfortunately, it didn’t take long to realize that success was not going to come quickly for the new-look Vols. That was made clear in the 40-14 blowout loss to West Virginia in the season opener. That sentiment was reinforced in Tennessee’s mistake-filled loss to rival Florida in Knoxville three weeks later. Pruitt’s Vols would go on to show a little moxie against a heavily favored Georgia team on the road, but still came up well short in the 38-12 loss.
And then it happened. Following a bye week, Tennessee would snap an 11-game SEC losing streak with a 30-24 win at No. 21 Auburn. The upset victory gave Pruitt his first signature win and moved the Vols to 3-3 (1-2SEC) on the season. It also made for the ultimate capper to an otherwise rocky first half for the Vols.
The Volunteers will now embark on the second half of their 2018 campaign with a little momentum behind them. There’s also plenty left for this team to improve upon. So, with that in mind, let’s take a glimpse into the future to see what may lie ahead in the final six games for Tennessee. But first, let’s look back at the first half of the season in the form of a few well-deserved awards.
Offensive MVP: QB Jarrett Guarantano
It was Guarantano’s standout performance in Tennessee’s road win over Auburn that solidified his MVP status. He completed 66 percent of his attempts in the upset victory for a career-best 328 passing yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions, earning Maxwell Award Offensive Player of the Week and SEC Offensive Player of the Week honors in the process.
Despite taking some serious lumps in the first six games, the redshirt sophomore has managed to complete 64 percent of his passes for 1,129 yards with six touchdowns and just two interceptions. Guarantano currently ranks fourth in the SEC in both yards per attempt (9.03) and QBR (152.5).
Defensive MVP: DL Alexis Johnson
No one has stepped up more for the Tennessee defense so far in 2018 than Johnson. The senior defensive lineman ranks second on the team in tackles (28), tackles for a loss (3.5) and sacks (1.5). Johnson racked up a career-high seven tackles against Georgia and followed that up with a game-changing performance in Tennessee’s win at Auburn.
Best Moment of the First Half: Guarantano to Jennings for the Go-Ahead Touchdown vs. Auburn
Highlight moments were few and far between for the Vols prior to last week’s game at Auburn. However, that matchup alone provided several memorable moments. Chief among them was a perfectly placed 25-yard-strike from Jarrett Guarantano (as he was being blasted by a defender) to wide receiver Jauan Jennings. Jennings outleaped an Auburn defender to make a beautiful grab, giving the Volunteers their first lead of the game (20-17) late in the third quarter. It shifted the momentum in Tennessee’s favor, and the Vols never looked back en route to a 30-24 win.
Best Newcomer: DB Bryce Thompson
A late addition to Tennessee’s 2018 signing class, the 4-star athlete was expected to make an impact on the offensive side of the football for the Vols. But Jeremy Pruitt wasted no time putting Thompson at cornerback. And while the true freshman has endured some growing pains, he continues to flash elite playmaking ability for the Tennessee defense. Thompson leads the Vols with two interceptions and five passes defended. He also has 19 tackles (2 TFL) and a forced fumble through six games. He earned SEC Freshman of the Week honors for his outstanding performance against East Tennessee State earlier this season.
Biggest Surprise: The Upset Victory on the Road at Auburn
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 2016. Tennessee snapped all of the aforementioned streaks in one fell swoop, shocking the college football world with a 30-24 upset victory on The Plains.
Three Things to Watch in the Second Half
1. Continued progress
There is no question that the Volunteers are finally starting to buy into Jeremy Pruitt’s master plan. The defense is coming to life as it grows more and more comfortable in the head coach's 3-4 scheme. And if last week was any indication, the passing game is in great hands moving forward with Jarrett Guarantano. More importantly, the culture is changing on Rocky Top, and that alone could go a long way in helping the Vols earn a bowl bid at season’s end.
But make no mistake, it will be a challenge for this team to make it into the postseason. Tennessee still has a lot to improve upon, and the roster still has its fair share of limitations. Time will tell, but if Pruitt can keep the Vols on the right path mentally, and the on-field improvement continues at its current rate; you have to like this team's chances.
2. The offensive line
Speaking of roster limitations, there is no position group where that is more evident than Tennessee’s offensive line. The Vols’ running game is averaging just 2.4 yards per carry in SEC play. And it’s a small miracle that Guarantano is not a mangled mess after taking massive shots week after week. These issues can largely be attributed to an anemic offensive line. The O-line is one of the few spots that has not shown positive signs of improvement for the Vols over the course of the first six games. That will need to change for the offense to maximize its potential down the stretch. Guarantano and the skill players will not be able to bail this group out on a weekly basis.
3. Will the Tennessee passing game continue to shine?
For reasons unknown, Pruitt and offensive coordinator Tyson Helton decided last week’s matchup against Auburn was the time to throw caution to the wind and unleash a Vols’ passing attack that had been mostly underwhelming up until that point. The results spoke for themselves. Guarantano had a career-best outing, while wide receivers Marquez Callaway, Jauan Jennings and Josh Palmer masterfully outdueled defenders to make difficult catches look routine. The question is, was this an anomaly or has the Tennessee passing game turned the corner?
It’s not an easy question to answer without a time machine. But expectations should be tempered. It will be difficult for Guarantano and company to perform at that level on a weekly basis, especially with the lingering issues along the offensive line. However, it is a promising development nonetheless, and one that the Tennessee offense can definitely build upon. At a minimum, this is now a passing game with confidence and momentum.
Ranking the Toughest Remaining Games on the Schedule
1. Oct. 20 Alabama
The Vols enter the Third Saturday in October rivalry with plenty of momentum following last week’s upset victory over Auburn. Jeremy Pruitt also knows his former team as well as anyone. But there isn’t a team in America better equipped to rain on Tennessee’s parade than Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide. Pruitt’s Vols will need more than momentum, insight and home-field advantage to pull off the upset against powerhouse Alabama.
2. Nov. 10 Kentucky
The Wildcats have not beaten the Volunteers in Knoxville since 1984. But this clearly isn’t your typical Kentucky team. Just ask the Florida Gators, who lost to the Cats in Gainesville back on Sept. 8 for the first time since 1979. Josh Allen is having an All-America-caliber season for a much-improved Kentucky defense. And Tennessee will have its hands full against a stout Kentucky run game led by Benny Snell Jr. This is not shaping up to look like the favorable matchup Vol fans expected before the start of the season.
3. Oct. 27 at South Carolina
Jake Bentley and the Gamecocks have largely underachieved to this point, sitting at 3-3 on the season. That bodes well for a Tennessee team that was one play away from beating South Carolina in Knoxville last year. That being said, the Gamecocks are a better football team than their current record suggests, and it will not be easy for the Vols to exit Columbia with a win.
4. Nov. 17 Missouri
Drew Lock and the high-powered Mizzou passing attack have fallen on hard times of late without elite playmaker Emanuel Hall (groin) in the lineup. Hall should be back in time for this matchup, and if this offense is clicking at that time, it will be no small task for the Vols to keep pace with the Tigers on the scoreboard. If Lock and company aren’t back on track, Tennessee’s chances improve dramatically.
5. Nov. 24 at Vanderbilt
The Commodores have won four out of the last six games in the series, including each of the last two contests. This year’s matchup is starting to look very favorable for Tennessee. But the same could be said prior to the last two games against Vanderbilt, and we all know how that turned out. It will be critical for Pruitt to find a way to get his Vols into the win column this time around.
6. Nov. 3 Charlotte
The 49ers will be a welcome opponent for the Vols following a brutal five-game SEC stretch. But they may not be the cupcake we thought they were heading into the season. Charlotte has already won two more games than it won all last season, and the 49ers currently boast the nation’s No. 6-ranked run defense (92.7 ypg). Regardless, Charlotte will be out of its league, literally and figuratively, on the road against the Vols.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.