With just more than five minutes remaining in Saturday’s game, Tennessee got the ball back after allowing South Carolina to take a 12–9 lead. The ensuing possession was one of the most crucial of its season thus far. Eat up some clock, put together a drive and score, and the game could have belonged to the Vols. Instead, Tennessee produced a five-yard run, an incomplete pass and then saw quarterback Jarrett Guarantano get sacked for a loss of 12 yards. Guarantano then fumbled and recovered the ball before his team was forced to punt.
The drive ate up exactly 52 seconds of the game clock, its only silver lining being that South Carolina didn’t recover the fumble—which after a day of lackluster offense would have somehow been the first turnover committed in the game. Tennessee instead punted and left South Carolina with plenty of time to notch a field goal that pushed the score to 15–9.
In the end, that was too wide of a margin for Tennessee in its second-straight loss. Although Guarantano and company were able to drive 73 yards to South Carolina’s two-yard line, the quarterback, making his first career start, wasn’t able to get into the end zone. In his first red-zone attempt, Guarantano was the beneficiary of pass interference, advancing to the two-yard line, and from there, he winged a ball into the stands and threw two more incomplete (but at least catchable) passes.
During the game, the ESPN broadcast caught a shot of a pack of South Carolina fans wearing red t-shirts that read “KEEP BUTCH JONES.” Jones’s fate was the shadow that loomed over the game—and may still for a few more weeks—and the shirts captured just how far the Jones saga has advanced; the coach is so widely blamed for 3-3 Tennessee’s woes that opposing fans are hoping he remains in Knoxville in perpetuity.
For Tennessee, there are a million ways to second-guess Saturday’s game. Maybe Jones could have gone to Quenton Dormady, his starter until this week, for the final drive. Dormady is a stronger passer, but in the end, Guarantano nearly doubled his passing yards for the game on that final drive. It’s easy to blame offensive woes on a shaky quarterback situation, but for Tennessee, the failure to develop any kind of running game, especially in the second half, was a major factor in the loss. The Vols rushed for just 120 yards on the afternoon, averaging 3.1 yards per carry, and South Carolina was noticeably more physical across the board in a game where it too often bumbled on offense.
With the loss, Tennessee falls to 0–3 in SEC East play. In those losses—against Florida, Georgia and now South Carolina—Tennessee has been shaky at quarterback and has averaged just 121.7 yards on the ground. The shutout loss to Georgia was bad, but the Vols’ final two quarters against a mediocre South Carolina team may have been even worse; until that final, make-or-break drive, Tennessee had just six net yards of offense in the game’s second half.
If Jones got two weeks to prepare for Will Muschamp and company, it’s hard to imagine what he and his staff will put together in six days to face No. 1 Alabama on the road next week—that is, if the coach makes it that long. For now, it seems like a waiting game in terms of when, not if, Jones and Tennessee part ways this season.