By Luke Thomas
“If at first the game – or the breaks – go against you, don’t let up… put on more steam.” Vol Fans hear this phrase so often that it is almost a cliche, however, it is one of the most important of General Robert Neyland’s 7 Maxims and is also very representative of Tennessee’s 2019 season as a whole.
It seems as if it was centuries ago when the Volunteers were preparing for their season opener against the Georgia State Panthers who had gone an unthinkable 2-10 the year before, the Vols were nearly 26-point favorites and Tennessee Fans were expecting a massive celebration in Neyland Stadium to officially get the season underway. However, as Jeremy Pruitt walked to centerfield to shake hands with Shawn Elliott, who was drenched in Gatorade after celebrating one of the biggest upsets of the season, he was likely filled with disgust and flat-out disbelief. The Panthers, a Sun Belt team that nobody had given a chance, had just come into Neyland Stadium and dominated the Volunteers in every aspect possible. Everyone associated with Tennessee was completely blindsided by the match-up, when you’re Goliath you don’t expect to lose to David, but that was exactly what had just happened to Tennessee. The Vols had lost to an opponent that they were better than at every single position group, it was easily one of the worst losses in Tennessee Football history and one that would live on in the heads of Vol Fans for eternity, like a recurring nightmare that you can never wake up from.
However, next week the nightmare showed some promising signs of finally slowing down as the Vols were up by 3 on BYU with just a few moments remaining in the match-up. With the Cougars pinned in at their own 20 yard-line, everyone thought a Tennessee victory was imminent. But that was all about to go out the window as Zach Wilson snapped the football with the clock bleeding down to near 30 seconds. Likely to Wilson’s complete astonishment he spotted one of his favorite targets, Micah Simon, wide open deep down the field. Tennessee had completely blown the coverage, Wilson immediately heaved the ball up for Simon who secured the catch in Tennessee territory. Nigel Warrior missed a tackle that could have saved Tennessee the game as Simon kept running all the way down to the Tennessee 16-yard line. Tennessee fans were in complete disbelief despite being in this exact same situation before. The woman who I was sitting next to put it best, she turned to me and muttered, “I can’t believe it.” BYU brought their field goal unit out as Jack Oldroyd nailed a 33-yard field goal to send the game into overtime where BYU would rip out the hearts of Tennessee Football fans one last time with a walk-off 5-yard touchdown.
The Volunteers would finally stop the bleeding with a 45-0 shutout victory over the Chattanooga Mocs, but all Vol Fans knew that the real test would be next week against one of their biggest SEC rivals, the Florida Gators. Despite the rough start for their beloved Volunteers, many Tennessee fans were holding out hope for a stunning upset victory in Ben Hill Griffin Stadium. Unfortunately, this was nowhere near the case as Florida ended up mopping the floor with the Vols, winning 34-3. Tennessee Fans knew that the game was over almost as soon as it started, for the second year in a row they weren’t even competitive with arguably their biggest rival. Tennessee starting quarterback Jarrett Guarantano was benched for true freshman Brian Maurer, and it couldn’t have been a worse time to be alive for supporters of the Big Orange. Factor in another blowout loss to the Georgia Bulldogs the following week in Neyland Stadium and almost nobody had any hope remaining in Tennessee.
The Vols were 1-4, their odds at surpassing the 6 win threshold required to gain entry into a bowl game were at an all time low. Some fans began to turn on Jeremy Pruitt as many braced for what was destined to be a 2 or 3 win season. However, after the loss to UGA, something clicked for Tennessee, they were about to go on one of the nation’s longest win streaks.
It all started late into the Vols’ match-up against Mississippi State, the Vols were up 3, looking to ice the game as the clock was waning with about 2:40 remaining in the match-up. Jarrett Guarantano snapped the ball and threw a strike to Tyler Byrd, who had been quiet his entire career, and ran all the way into the checkerboard endzones for a 39-yard touchdown. After a Mississippi State missed field goal the Vols were able to take a knee and secure their first SEC win of the season. At the time nobody knew it, but that victory over a weak Bulldog Squad would end up resurrecting Tennessee’s season.
Following the Vols’ 35-13 loss to Alabama, which was much closer than the score indicated, Tennessee began to prepare for their battle with the South Carolina Gamecocks, who had just upset the Georgia Bulldogs. The game was expected to be a nail-biter, and for the first half it was, but in the second half the Vols exploded for 24 points while holding the Gamecocks to none. The final score was 41-21, the first time Tennessee had beaten an SEC opponent by 20 or more points since 2016’s match-up with Missouri. The Vols blew the doors off of South Carolina in a match-up that included a punt return for a touchdown and a blocked punt return for a touchdown.
After a good showing against UAB in which the Vols’ won 30-7, Tennessee turned their sights to Kentucky and taking another major step in their journey to reach their first Bowl Game since 2016. The game ended up coming down to one final play, the Wildcats had the ball at the 2-yard line on 4th and Goal and needed a touchdown to take the lead. Lynn Bowden snapped the ball, rolling to his right for the option. Bituli met Bowden at the line of scrimmage as the Vols covered up Smoke. Bowden went down and the Vols took over on downs before Guarantano ran a bootleg to seal victory for Tennessee. Next week, Tennessee officially clinched its first bowl game since the 2016 season against the Missouri Tigers under the guidance of Jarrett Guarantano, who threw for over 400 yards through the air before closing the season out with an expected victory over their in-state rivals, the Vanderbilt Commodores.
The Vols were rewarded for their miraculous turnaround with a bid in the Taxslayer Gator Bowl against the Indiana Hoosiers. The 2nd half was the microcosm of Tennessee’s entire season, at first, everything went wrong, including a pick-six from Jarrett Guarantano. However, with the game on the line Tennessee had a miracle to finish the game, after recovering an onside kick and scoring 2 touchdowns in a 30-second time span, the Vols stopped the Hoosiers twice to seal their first Bowl Victory since the 2016 Music City Bowl.
Make no mistake about it, this season was just like a great movie, it was a story of redemption and never giving up, it was a story filled with great highs and historic lows. Tennessee was able to overcome all odds to make, and win, a bowl game for the first time in 3 years and it could go down as the moment we all look back at and think to ourselves, “That was it, that was the year Jeremy Pruitt turned the tide on Rocky Top.”