The 124th season of Tennessee football will be unlike anything in the program’s history.
Four FBS conferences, including the Big Ten and Pac-12, canceled their 2020 fall season because of the COVID-19 pandemic, while reserving the option of playing a spring season. The SEC, for now, aims to proceed with its plan for a 10-game, conference-only schedule that will begin on Sept. 26.
Pandemic-related topics aside, here are five storylines that will define coach Jeremy Pruitt’s third season.
Will the Vols beat one of their top rivals?
Tennessee has one of the stiffest schedules in the country, featuring five opponents ranked in the top 13 of the preseason Amway Coaches Poll.
That includes No. 3 Alabama, No. 4 Georgia and No. 8 Florida.
The Vols have lost 13 straight to Alabama, eight of the last 10 against the Bulldogs, and 14 of the last 15 against the Gators. The 2016 season marked the last time Tennessee beat any of those three rivals, when the Vols defeated Georgia and Florida.
For comparison’s sake, Pruitt’s predecessor, Butch Jones, first beat one of those rivals during his third season, in 2015, when Tennessee beat Georgia.
Tennessee has been embarrassed in six matchups against those rivals during the Pruitt era, losing by a combined margin of 255-84. The closest game was a 35-13 loss to Alabama last season in which Tennessee trailed by eight points midway through the third quarter.
The Vols could sell progress in their second season under Pruitt despite thrashings by their top rivals. That would be a harder sell in Year 3.
Will a reliable quarterback emerge?
Inconsistent production from Tennessee’s quarterbacks was a defining narrative of the 2019 season. Jarrett Guarantano opened and finished the season as starter. In between, three other players started at quarterback.
Guarantano and backups Brian Maurer and J.T. Shrout returned. They are joined by freshmen Harrison Bailey and Jimmy Holiday. Bailey is the highest-ranked quarterback recruit Pruitt has signed.
Guarantano is the favorite to retain the job. The fifth-year senior will have the advantage of playing behind the best offensive line of his career and working under the same offensive coordinator in back-to-back seasons for the first time.
Guarantano, a quarterback of the Jekyll-and-Hyde variety, starred in a victory over Missouri, and his second-half performance helped spark Tennessee to a comeback win over Indiana in the Gator Bowl. But he was mediocre in losses to Georgia State and BYU and delivered a few clunkers during SEC play.
Given Tennessee’s difficult schedule, it must get better production from a quarterback to finish above .500.
Will significant turnover on the defensive staff affect production?
Tennessee’s defense played the starring role during a six-game winning streak to close last season. Then, three defensive assistants departed during the offseason, leaving coordinator Derrick Ansley as the only defensive staffer to return.
Ansley and Pruitt are proven overseers of Tennessee’s secondary, and defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh is a veteran. The two assistants coaching linebackers are greener. Brian Niedermeyer is coaching defense for the first time in his career, and this will be Shelton Felton’s first season coaching at the FBS level.
Niedermeyer has experience as a defensive graduate assistant at Georgia and Alabama, and Felton coached Akron’s linebackers last season after spending 2018 as a defensive analyst at UT.
Are Eric Gray and Henry To’o To’o ready to emerge as stars?
Gray and To’o To’o had nice debuts as freshmen. Gray finished with a flourish in wins over Vanderbilt and Indiana, and To’o To’o proved a reliable cohort alongside Daniel Bituli all season.
The Vols need both players to develop into stars as sophomores.
Gray has the talent to be Tennessee’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Jalen Hurd in 2015, and he has the charisma to be the face of the program. With Bituli departed, To’o To’o must go from sidekick to stalwart.
Can Tennessee avoid a flop?
As much as Tennessee’s 2019 season will be remembered for the six-game winning streak at the close, it also will be remembered for losses to Georgia State and BYU.
Tennessee’s schedule last season allowed for the Vols to finish 8-5 despite not beating any ranked opponents after suffering those two non-conference losses.
This schedule leaves no margin for any inexplicable stumbles.
A loss to either Arkansas or Vanderbilt would be a head-scratcher of Georgia State proportions. Games against Kentucky, South Carolina and Missouri are a bit trickier, but the Vols need a clean sweep against that trio, too.
That would set up a winning season if Tennessee can manage a win against at least one foe ranked in the preseason poll. And if Tennessee can hold up under this schedule, it would help the Vols maintain a 2021 recruiting class that is ranked fifth in the 247Sports Composite.
Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it. Current subscribers can click here to join Blake’s subscriber-only text group offering updates and analysis on Vols football.