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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano warms up for last Saturday's home game against UTC.

KNOXVILLE — Each season tells a story of a football program, with each game serving as a chapter in a book.

Tennessee's first-half possessions last year against Florida tell a dark tale.

Fumble. Interception. Turnover on downs. Field goal. Safety. Fumble. Fumble.

Not counting a kneel-down to end the half, the results of the Volunteers' seven possessions make it not surprising at all that they trailed 26-3 midway through a game they ultimately lost 47-21 at Neyland Stadium.

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Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano greets his teammates as they make their way to the locker room after their 45-0 win over UTC in September. / Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter

The Vols fumbled the ball four times in the game. They lost them all. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano threw for 164 yards but completed less than 40% of his 18 passes and was intercepted twice.

"It all starts with practice," Guarantano said this week. "We already know the focal point of practice is creating turnovers (defensively) and not giving the ball over; last year we turned it over a lot, so we're going to work a lot on being better.

"That's how we lost last year was turnovers."

This year Guarantano turned the ball over twice in the second half of the season-opening loss to Georgia State, with a fourth-quarter interception and a fumble while being sacked. Against BYU, he threw an interception on the first drive of the second half, leading to the Cougars' lone touchdown of regulation.

He also missed open receivers at key points in the action.

He found somewhat of a rhythm against the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, throwing a career-high three touchdown passes and completing 88% of his passes for 164 yards. It was a step in the right direction, but Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt said there was "no doubt" Guarantano hasn't played as well as he could to date this year.

"I've seen him at his best, and when he's on he's pretty good," Pruitt said. "There have been times in his career that maybe based on some things around him, he maybe didn't have as good of an opportunity to be at his best all the time, whether it be protection or whatever. Maybe just the scoreboard in itself.

"But I do feel like that our offensive line is much improved at giving him a pretty nice pocket this year and giving him an opportunity. We have good skill players around him, and he's like everyone else: He's working hard to be at his best for every Saturday, and he'll continue to do that."

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Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / Tennessee quarterback Jarrett Guarantano (2) throws a 12-yard touchdown pass in front of UTC defensive lineman Khayyan Edwards during last Saturday's game at Neyland Stadium.

Those skill players speak highly of the junior signal-caller. Senior receiver Jauan Jennings called the UTC game a "bounce-back" week for Guarantano, and the Vols' most experienced player said they will need mistake-free football from him to be successful this weekend.

"JG, I tell him every time that he's the leader of this team," said Jennings, who has 208 yards on 12 catches with four touchdowns this season. "We need him, and he's been vocalizing his leadership on this team. He's ready to play. I tell him all the time, I've got his back and he's got mine. So no worries there."

Since Guarantano arrived on campus in 2016, he has had four offensive coordinators and two completely different schemes. Guarantano said he's spent a lot of time with this year's coordinator, Jim Chaney, "digging deep into each other's minds" and continuing to develop a chemistry between the two.

That will be important. Four of the six turnovers in last season's Florida game can be linked to Guarantano, and for Tennessee to have a chance this week, he realizes that can't happen again.

"Every single week is a different game plan, with new words and new terminology going into it, so it's a whole different season every week and I have to get accustomed to what he's thinking and how he's calling plays," Guarantano said of Chaney. "It's going to take some time, but I think that last week was a good start to that.

"I think we're up to the challenge this week, but we know they're going to bring it."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3 or at Facebook.com/VolsUpdate.

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