Was it a hangover from the Georgia defeat?
Was it overconfidence against a team you’ve beaten 33 of the last 35 matchups?
Or was it a team that can’t win with a fifth-year senior at quarterback who has had more ups than downs than a yo-yo during a spotty career?
Whatever the case, a Tennessee team many thought was headed in the right direction took a major turn for the worse, falling to Kentucky 34-7 at Neyland Stadium on Saturday afternoon.
Tennessee, a touchdown favorite, seemed to pick up where it left off last week against Georgia, when the Bulldogs outscored the Vols 27-0 in the second half.
The Vols committed four turnovers on four consecutive possessions in the first half – two were pick sixes – and were never in the game after Kentucky marched 76 yards for a third-quarter score to make it 24-7.
In the past six quarters, Tennessee has been outscored 61-7 but two East division teams.
That’s not exactly gaining on the competition.
Guarantano, who has had far too few good moments as UT’s quarterback, was horrific. He threw two pick sixes, got benched for a series, returned without being effective then was retired in the fourth quarter when the Wildcats went up 34-7.
The outcome left Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt fuming and second-guessing a number of things: Like throwing a 25-yard out route on third-and 4, like lack of effort after an opponent’s interception, like questioning whether his players are preparing properly.
Then, there’s the biggest question: Does Pruitt make a change at quarterback or stick with Guarantano next week against Alabama?
“Undecided,’’ Pruitt said.
After benching Guarantano, Pruitt went with JT Shrout then true freshman Harrison Bailey, who made a nice 24-yard completion on his only possession, but the 10-play drive stalled at the 10-yard line.
Pruitt was unhappy with the play call on third-and-4 from the UT 39-yard line that led to Kentucky’s first pick-six, a 41-yard return by LSU transfer Kelvin Joseph.
“That was a bad throw and a bad call – a 54-yard out route for 4 yards,’’ Pruitt said. “What’s the risk/reward there? … That’s nobody’s fault but mine.’’
Actually, it was offensive coordinator Jim Chaney’s fault. He made the call.
It’s not a call Chaney will likely make again as UT’s play caller.
“I’ve never been a big fan of throwing a 35-yard out route to gain 4 yards,’’ Pruitt said. “I don’t believe in the risk/reward.’’
That wasn’t the only thing that had Pruitt boiling.
Pruitt said he’s never been part of a team in which when the offense has a turnover, the other team scores or gets prime field position.
“That’s something that has to stop … for us to have a chance to win the damn game,’’ Pruitt said.
Was it lack of effort?
“Absolutely,’’ Pruitt said. “I’m going to call it like it is.’’
Pruitt said he coached a game in which his team won 9-6 because of a great effort by an offensive player to top the interceptor at the half-yard-line, forcing a field goal.
“That’s how you build a winning team,’’ Pruitt said.
Considering the way UT has been played in the last six quarters, Pruitt was asked if his team has lost some confidence.
“Probably should, right?’’ Pruitt said.
Unlike in the Georgia game, Pruitt was pleased with the performance of his offensive line, which generated a 14-play, 75-yard scoring drive before the half; 12 were runs.
“I thought the offensive line blocked pretty good, to be honest,’’ Pruitt said. “I was disappointed in the running backs for not making yards after contact.’’
That didn’t apply to Eric Gray, who had 128 yards on 24 carries.
While the line did well run blocking, pass protection continues to be an issue, particularly at both tackle positions.
Still, Pruitt said he thinks UT can “fix’’ the offensive problems. He was more worried about the defense, which stuffed Kentucky in the first half (75 yards on 25 plays) but got whipped by UK’s run game in the second half (161 rush yards).
Pruitt questioned some of his players commitment to preparation.
“Talent don’t equal a good football player,’’ he said.
Pruitt told the story of leaving the office Wednesday at 1 am, seeing a TV on and noticing linebacker Henry To’o To’o watching tape of Kentucky.
“That’s how he goes about his business,’’ Pruitt said. “He puts the time and effort in. That’s why he plays so well.’’
Pruitt indicated not all of UT players put forth that effort.
It seemed to show in the worse loss to Kentucky since 1935.
NOTES: UT had won 17 in a row at home against Kentucky until Saturday … Cornerback Alontae Taylor (hamstring) did not play as he battled the same injury that caused him to miss time during camp. … Linebacker Jeremy Banks (ankle) left the game but Pruitt did not know the results of X-rays. … Pruitt and UT were fined $100,000 by the SEC because Pruitt did not wear his mask properly during the Georgia game.