Wiedmer: Vols have talent, temperament to win the SEC East

Tennessee Athletics photo by Andrew Ferguson / Tennessee linebacker Henry To'o To'o, right, said after Saturday's home win against Missouri that the Vols have "the best offensive line in the country" this season.

The University of Tennessee's second Southeastern Conference football victory in two tries this season complete Saturday afternoon, sophomore linebacker Henry To'o To'o was asked to comment on the Volunteers' offensive line.

"We have the best offensive line in the country," replied the California native shortly after the Vols' 35-12 victory over Missouri inside Neyland Stadium.

It's beginning to look as if the Big Orange just might have the best team in the SEC East, if not the whole Southeastern Conference. At least it could certainly begin looking that way if the Vols win next weekend at Georgia.

This is not written to needlessly hype a contest that needs no pregame promotion. This is to say that two games into Jeremy Pruitt's third season atop Rocky Top, UT looks closer to its 1990s glory days than it has in two decades, beginning with an offensive line a handful of NFL teams would covet now that Cade Mays has been let out of SEC transfer jail.

It's not just Mays, of course, though he's no fewer than three of the interior five - if not all five - who should be playing for pay on Sundays one day soon. Left guard Trey Smith is considered by many to be a certain first-round draft pick and a possible Outland Trophy winner, which is the lineman's Heisman Trophy. Center Brandon Kennedy is old and wise and versatile. Left tackle Wanya Morris might be the most talented of the bunch. Then there's Mays, the Georgia transfer and UT legacy - his father Kevin played with Peyton Manning - whose past glories with the Bulldogs and 6-foot-6, 320-pound frame strongly suggest To'o To'o's assessment of the whole bunch is on the money.

Yes, most of the eight remaining SEC games on the Vols' schedule will be tougher than these first two wins over South Carolina and Mizzou. But the coronavirus willing - and it played much havoc with Pruitt getting proper practice time ahead of the most challenging season in Big Orange history - UT should also improve each week.

Nor does the rest of the division look overwhelming. Even lordly Alabama has made enough errors on both sides of the ball to provide a vaguely reasonable hope for its opponents.

And within the East Division only, Florida's defense looks less than terrifying. Georgia's offense was downright awful for much of its opening win at Arkansas. The other East programs left on UT's schedule are Vanderbilt and Kentucky, and neither looks capable of hanging with the Vols, much as it's almost always been.

But when UT was at its best in the 1990s, winning multiple SEC titles and one national championship, it was everyone else - at least everyone else but Florida - worrying about the Vols. Winning the East meant having to beat Tennessee, which was always a nightmare to face on both sides of the line of scrimmage.

Beyond that, the best teams in any sport are driven by players.

Say what you will of quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, but he not only has guided an offense this unusual season that is yet to make a turnover, he has played a major role in eight straight wins, including six straight league triumphs, dating to last season.

To further underscore the fifth-year senior's maturity, he's beginning to sound like the kind of leader who reminds you of both Manning and Tee Martin, the current assistant who quarterbacked that national championship season.

"We've got a lot to learn from," Guarantano said. "Got to get better."

To move that along, he told the SEC Network he intended to spend Saturday night watching the Auburn-Georgia game.

"I've got an off night to analyze (the Bulldogs)," he said.

Here's how the SEC Network analyzed the Vols on Saturday.

Former Auburn coach Gene Chizik, praising backs Ty Chandler (90 yards, one touchdown) and Eric Gray (105 yards, one touchdown): "Eric Gray is going to lead the conference in rushing." He also said, "These guys are a real player in the East."

Added former Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley: "This offensive line looks like it's already in midseason form."

Next Saturday in Athens, all the Vols will need to be in midseason form to knock off Georgia. But Pruitt's first two seasons proved he knows how to compete on the league's biggest stages. The Vols won at nationally ranked Auburn his first year. Last season they scared Alabama in Tuscaloosa, then became the last team to beat Kentucky on the Wildcats' way to a bowl win.

As Pruitt addressed the media through the social distancing of Zoom, he said of his dangerous team: "We've got a bunch of guys who are winners."

Come Saturday between the Bulldogs' hedges, don't be surprised if those winners move to 3-0 in the SEC.

photo Mark Wiedmer

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @TFPWeeds.