The Jarrett Guarantano era appears over at Tennessee, but what about the Jeremy Pruitt era?

Blake Toppmeyer
Knoxville News Sentinel

The Jarrett Guarantano era is, by all appearances, mercifully over.

The remaining question in this Tennessee football season is whether the Jeremy Pruitt era will extend into a fourth season.

In a sign of just how poorly this Vols season has gone, a 31-19 loss to No. 5 Florida on Saturday at Neyland Stadium felt something like modest progress.

At least, Tennessee (2-6) showed progress at quarterback simply by navigating a game without any catastrophic mistakes by Guarantano. A senior quarterback who has started 32 career games, Guarantano was in uniform but didn’t participate in a Tennessee game for the first time since Nov. 11, 2017.

Pruitt said Guarantano hadn't practiced following Tennessee’s last game against Auburn on Nov. 21. Several Vols were unable to practice leading up to the Florida game because of required quarantine due to contact tracing, after three Vols tested positive for COVID-19 in the days following the Auburn game.

Freshman quarterback Harrison Bailey, making his first career start, didn’t look like the next Peyton Manning. But he didn’t throw any pick-sixes, of which Guarantano has three this season. It remains unclear whether Bailey can test a defense downfield. Most of his throws were within a handful of yards of the line of scrimmage. He finished 14-of-21 for 111 yards and a touchdown.

“He did a hell of a job tonight,” backup quarterback J.T. Shrout said.

Shrout could have used those words to accurately describe his own performance.

Playing for the first time since Oct. 17, Shrout completed 12 of 14 passes for 121 yards with a touchdown during a relief appearance. He posted those numbers despite suffering a right shoulder injury days earlier in practice.

Shrout’s two fourth-quarter touchdown drives made a comfortable Florida victory appear competitive, and he threw a beautiful ball to Velus Jones Jr. for a 22-yard touchdown.

Pruitt didn’t detail how he’ll approach the starting quarterback spot for next week’s game against winless Vanderbilt. Bailey and Shrout showed that Pruitt need not turn back to Guarantano.

“I thought they had some poise,” Pruitt said of Bailey and Shrout.

Pruitt can ill afford a loss to Vanderbilt. Tennessee has its first six-game losing streak since 1988. This program, which played its first season in 1891, has never had a seven-game losing streak.

Pruitt also can ill afford to turn back to Guarantano. Quarterback performance certainly hasn’t been Tennessee’s only issue since the start of 2017 season, but the Vols have lost too many times with Guarantano steering the offense. It is time to move on, whether to Bailey, Shrout or a combination of the two.

Tennessee made a case Saturday that it isn’t time to move on from Pruitt as coach. Florida’s 31 points were a season low, and the Vols played the Gators to a closer margin than SEC East counterparts Georgia, Missouri and Kentucky.

Pruitt didn’t sound like a coach in the mood for moral victories – “I came to this stadium to win the game,” he said – but he can sell Tennessee’s performance Saturday as a small step forward, unlike the ugly losses to Georgia, Kentucky and Alabama that started this losing streak.

“Our team ain’t quitting,” Pruitt said. “We don’t have an effort problem. We don’t have a toughness problem. We’ve got an execution problem, and we’ve got to work hard to fix that. Our guys will.”

Blake Toppmeyer covers University of Tennessee football. Email him at 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.