2019 has been a hellish season for Tennessee fans. The Volunteers opened the season with a 38-30 loss to Georgia State, a team that was 2-10 in the Sun Belt in 2018.
The next week, the Tennessee defense had an epic blown coverage that let BYU get in position for a game-tying field goal. The Cougars then took their first lead of the game on the winning score in overtime.
Week 3 was a reprieve with a win over FCS school Chattanooga. But Week 4 was a brutal 34-3 loss at Florida in the Vols first SEC game of the year. It’s the first time Tennessee has started the season 1-3 since 2008. That was the final season of now-athletic director Phillip Fulmer’s time as head coach.
With those details in mind, you’ll probably be surprised to learn that Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt thinks the team is miles ahead of where it was through four weeks of the 2018 season when UT was 2-2 and coming off a 26-point loss to Florida.
“Our football team is a hundred times better than it was this time last year, OK? And our guys are working hard,” Pruitt said Wednesday. We’re stronger, we’re more physical. But when it comes to having success winning a football game, you can’t turn the ball over and you have to create turnovers.”
Tennessee is plus-one in the turnover margin category so far in 2019 but that statistic is extremely misleading. The Vols forced five turnovers in the 45-0 win over Chattanooga and didn’t turn the ball over once. Against FBS opponents, Tennessee has turned the ball over eight times and forced just four.
Oh, and three of those turnovers forced came against Florida on Saturday. They sure didn’t help much when it came to the margin of victory.
Guarantano briefly benched against Florida
Two of Tennessee’s four turnovers against Florida came via interceptions thrown by QB Jarrett Guarantano.
Guarantano entered the 2019 season as the team’s undisputed starter but has failed to build on the flashes of promise he showed at the end of the 2018 season. He briefly sat out against Florida as freshman Brian Maurer got playing time. Maurer was the QB on the drive that led to Tennessee’s only field goal of the game, though Guarantano re-entered after Maurer threw 11 passes.
Entering its first off week, Pruitt said the coaching staff is dividing up first-team reps among Guarantano, Maurer and J.T. Shrout.
“Jarrett has not been probably as good as he’d like to be at certain times but he’s also made some really good throws and made some really good decisions,” Pruitt said. “No different than maybe the defensive line, linebackers, secondary, whatever.”
“Everybody in our program’s got to raise their level. We’ve got to be more consistent. And we’ve got to create the right habits so it shows up on game day.”
Pruitt also confirmed that three players had left the team, including LB Will Ignont. He had 16 tackles over the first three weeks of the season. Five players overall have left since the beginning of the year.
Things don’t get any easier in the next few weeks
While the off week may be coming at a good time for Tennessee to get some things figured out on both sides of the ball, the schedule is pretty tough when it picks back up on Oct. 5. No. 3 Georgia comes to Knoxville in Week 5 and then Mississippi State is at Tennessee in Week 6 before the Volunteers travel to No. 2 Alabama in Week 7.
There’s an extremely real possibility Tennessee will be 1-6 before facing South Carolina and UAB at home.
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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports
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