A roller coaster season for the Vols ended Thursday in the only way possible – in a completely crazy bowl game.
Tennessee improbably rallied from a 13-point deficit in the final five minutes of the Taxslayer Gator Bowl to beat Indiana 23-22, scoring two touchdowns in the span of 30 seconds and then surviving a long missed field goal by the Hoosiers in the final minutes.
To put in perspective just how improbable the comeback was, ESPN released this stat following the game: Going into the Gator Bowl, RBS teams with a 13-point lead in the final five minutes of the game in the 2019-20 season were 471-0.
Tennessee made that 471-1 when Eric Gray rushed for the game-winning touchdown, just two plays after the freshman had recovered an onside kick which changed the game.
Vol fans depleted of good moments for more than a decade should soak up every second of glory from the Gator Bowl. It was only four months ago when Tennessee had a 99.6 percent chance of beating BYU (per ESPN’s in-game tracker), only to give up a long pass late and eventually lose in double overtime.
To have one of these finally swing the other way feels good for the Big Orange faithful. It should.
What it shouldn’t do though is make everybody think all is well on Rocky Top. To put it mildly, there’s still so much work to do before Tennessee could ever possibly dream of competing with teams like LSU and Clemson.
To start, Tennessee still has a QB problem.
Jarrett Guarantano continued his Jekyll and Hyde routine in the bowl game. He was decent early, bad late in the first half, dismal in the third quarter and throwing a few strikes when it mattered most late.
Guarantano hit a low point in the second half when he threw a pick-six, allowing Indiana to take a 17-6 lead in the third quarter. Jeremy Pruitt had seen enough at that point, inserting freshman Brian Maurer the next series.
Maurer led a drive that ended with a field goal, but it could’ve ended with an interception three different times. Guarantano came back the following drive, ultimately leading two TD drives late for the comeback.
Guarantano can come back next year – and probably will. Maurer, a starter at times, will be back too. JT Shrout, the team’s third-stringer, got a start this season and is just a freshman too.
Even with three returning signal calllers coming back with starting experience, Vol fans are hoping prized recruit Harrison Bailey is ready to step into the starting position. The leader of a state champion in Georgia this fall, Bailey is a potential game changer in the backfield for the Vols.
He better be anyway.
Everybody can smile and rejoice after beating the Hoosiers, but the fact is the Vols are still short-handed at the game’s premier position.
If Bailey isn’t the real deal from the start, it’s going to be another rocky season on Rocky Top in 2020.